Francis’s news feed

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

April 30, 2016

They Have To Be Monsters by Jeff Atwood

Since I started working on Discourse, I spend a lot of time thinking about how software can encourage and nudge people to be more empathetic online. That's why it's troubling to read articles like this one:

My brother’s 32nd birthday is today. It’s an especially emotional day for his family because he’s not alive for it.

He died of a heroin overdose last February. This year is even harder than the last. I started weeping at midnight and eventually cried myself to sleep. Today’s symptoms include explosions of sporadic sobbing and an insurmountable feeling of emptiness. My mom posted a gut-wrenching comment on my brother’s Facebook page about the unfairness of it all. Her baby should be here, not gone. “Where is the God that is making us all so sad?” she asked.

In response, someone — a stranger/(I assume) another human being — commented with one word: “Junkie.”

The interaction may seem a bit strange and out of context until you realize that this is the Facebook page of a person who was somewhat famous, who produced the excellent show Parks and Recreation. Not that this forgives the behavior in any way, of course, but it does explain why strangers would wander by and make observations.

There is deep truth in the old idea that people are able to say these things because they are looking at a screen full of words, not directly at the face of the person they're about to say a terrible thing to. That one level of abstraction the Internet allows, typing, which is so immensely powerful in so many other contexts …

… has some crippling emotional consequences.

As an exercise in empathy, try to imagine saying some of the terrible things people typed to each other online to a real person sitting directly in front of you. Or don't imagine, and just watch this video.

I challenge you to watch the entirety of that video. I couldn't do it. This is the second time I've tried, and I had to turn it off not even 2 minutes in because I couldn't take it any more.

It's no coincidence that these are comments directed at women. Over the last few years I have come to understand how, as a straight white man, I have the privilege of being immune from most of this kind of treatment. But others are not so fortunate. The Guardian analyzed 70 million comments and found that online abuse is heaped disproportionately on women, people of color, and people of different sexual orientation.

And avalanches happen easily online. Anonymity disinhibits people, making some of them more likely to be abusive. Mobs can form quickly: once one abusive comment is posted, others will often pile in, competing to see who can be the most cruel. This abuse can move across platforms at great speed – from Twitter, to Facebook, to blogposts – and it can be viewed on multiple devices – the desktop at work, the mobile phone at home. To the person targeted, it can feel like the perpetrator is everywhere: at home, in the office, on the bus, in the street.

I've only had a little taste of this treatment, once. The sense of being "under siege" – a constant barrage of vitriol and judgment pouring your way every day, every hour – was palpable. It was not pleasant. It absolutely affected my state of mind. Someone remarked in the comments that ultimately it did not matter, because as a white man I could walk away from the whole situation any time. And they were right. I began to appreciate what it would feel like when you can't walk away, when this harassment follows you around everywhere you go online, and you never really know when the next incident will occur, or exactly what shape it will take.

Imagine the feeling of being constantly on edge like that, every day. What happens to your state of mind when walking away isn't an option? It gave me great pause.

The Scream by Nathan Sawaya

I admired the way Stephanie Wittels Wachs actually engaged with the person who left that awful comment. This is a man who has two children of his own, and should be no stranger to the kind of pain involved in a child's death. And yet he felt the need to post the word "Junkie" in reply to a mother's anguish over losing her child to drug addiction.

Isn’t this what empathy is? Putting myself in someone else’s shoes with the knowledge and awareness that I, too, am human and, therefore, susceptible to this tragedy or any number of tragedies along the way?

Most would simply delete the comment, block the user, and walk away. Totally defensible. But she didn't. She takes the time and effort to attempt to understand this person who is abusing her mother, to reach them, to connect, to demonstrate the very empathy this man appears incapable of.

Consider the related story of Lenny Pozner, who lost a child at Sandy Hook, and became the target of groups who believe the event was a hoax, and similarly selflessly devotes much of his time to refuting and countering these bizarre claims.

Tracy’s alleged harassment was hardly the first, Pozner said. There’s a whole network of people who believe the media reported a mass shooting that never happened, he said, that the tragedy was an elaborate hoax designed to increase support for gun control. Pozner said he gets ugly comments often on social media, such as, “Eventually you’ll be tried for your crimes of treason against the people,” “… I won’t be satisfied until the caksets are opened…” and “How much money did you get for faking all of this?”

It's easy to practice empathy when you limit it to people that are easy to empathize with – the downtrodden, the undeserving victims. But it is another matter entirely to empathize with those that hate, harangue, and intentionally make other people's lives miserable. If you can do this, you are a far better person than me. I struggle with it. But my hat is off to you. There's no better way to teach empathy than to practice it, in the most difficult situations.

In individual cases, reaching out and really trying to empathize with people you disagree with or dislike can work, even people who happen to be lifelong members of hate organizations, as in the remarkable story of Megan Phelps-Roper:

As a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, in Topeka, Kansas, Phelps-Roper believed that AIDS was a curse sent by God. She believed that all manner of other tragedies—war, natural disaster, mass shootings—were warnings from God to a doomed nation, and that it was her duty to spread the news of His righteous judgments. To protest the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in America, the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funerals of gay men who died of AIDS and of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Members held signs with slogans like “GOD HATES FAGS” and “THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS,” and the outrage that their efforts attracted had turned the small church, which had fewer than a hundred members, into a global symbol of hatred.

Perhaps one of the greatest failings of the Internet is the breakdown in cost of emotional labor.

First we’ll reframe the problem: the real issue is not Problem Child’s opinions – he can have whatever opinions he wants. The issue is that he’s doing zero emotional labor – he’s not thinking about his audience or his effect on people at all. (Possibly, he’s just really bad at modeling other people’s responses – the outcome is the same whether he lacks the will or lacks the skill.) But to be a good community member, he needs to consider his audience.

True empathy means reaching out and engaging in a loving way with everyone, even those that are hurtful, hateful, or spiteful. But on the Internet, can you do it every day, multiple times a day, across hundreds of people? Is this a reasonable thing to ask of someone? Is it even possible, short of sainthood?

The question remains: why would people post such hateful things in the first place? Why reply "Junkie" to a mother's anguish? Why ask the father of a murdered child to publicly prove his child's death was not a hoax? Why tweet "Thank God for AIDS!"

Unfortunately, I think I know the answer to this question, and you're not going to like it.

Busy-Work by Shen,

I don't like it. I don't want it. But I know.

I have laid some heavy stuff on you in this post, and for that, I apologize. I think the weight of what I'm trying to communicate here requires it. I have to warn you that the next article I'm about to link is far heavier than anything I have posted above, maybe the heaviest thing I've ever posted. It's about the legal quandary presented in the tragic cases of children who died because their parents accidentally left them strapped into carseats, and it won a much deserved pulitzer. It is also one of the most harrowing things I have ever read.

Ed Hickling believes he knows why. Hickling is a clinical psychologist from Albany, N.Y., who has studied the effects of fatal auto accidents on the drivers who survive them. He says these people are often judged with disproportionate harshness by the public, even when it was clearly an accident, and even when it was indisputably not their fault.

Humans, Hickling said, have a fundamental need to create and maintain a narrative for their lives in which the universe is not implacable and heartless, that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible.

In hyperthermia cases, he believes, the parents are demonized for much the same reasons. “We are vulnerable, but we don’t want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we’ll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don’t want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters.

This man left the junkie comment because he is afraid. He is afraid his own children could become drug addicts. He is afraid his children, through no fault of his, through no fault of anyone at all, could die at 30. When presented with real, tangible evidence of the pain and grief a mother feels at the drug related death of her own child, and the reality that it could happen to anyone, it became so overwhelming that it was too much for him to bear.

Those "Sandy Hook Truthers" harass the father of a victim because they are afraid. They are afraid their own children could be viciously gunned down in cold blood any day of the week, bullets tearing their way through the bodies of the teachers standing in front of them, desperately trying to protect them from being murdered. They can't do anything to protect their children from this, and in fact there's nothing any of us can do to protect our children from being murdered at random, at school any day of the week, at the whim of any mentally unstable individual with access to an assault rifle. That's the harsh reality.

When faced with the abyss of pain and grief that parents feel over the loss of their children, due to utter random chance in a world they can't control, they could never control, maybe none of us can ever control, the overwhelming sense of existential dread is simply too much to bear. So they have to be monsters. They must be.

And we will fight these monsters, tooth and nail, raging in our hatred, so we can forget our pain, at least for a while.

After Lyn Balfour’s acquittal, this comment appeared on the Charlottesville News Web site:

“If she had too many things on her mind then she should have kept her legs closed and not had any kids. They should lock her in a car during a hot day and see what happens.”

I imagine the suffering that these parents are already going through, reading these words that another human being typed to them, just typed, and something breaks inside me. I can't process it. But rather than pitting ourselves against each other out of fear, recognize that the monster who posted this terrible thing is me. It's you. It's all of us.

The weight of seeing through the fear and beyond the monster to simply discover yourself is often too terrible for many people to bear. In a world of hard things, it's the hardest there is.

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Future High-Resolution Imaging of Mars: Super-Res to the Rescue? by The Planetary Society

HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen explains an imaging technique known as Super-Resolution Restoration (SRR), and how it could come in handy for high-resolution imaging of the Red Planet.

April 29, 2016

We Need To Talk About Steve Rogers (again). by Feeling Listless

Film Let's get the obvious out of the way first. Captain America: Civil War is awesome. That cultural barometer Rotten Tomatoes currently suggests a reviewer average of 93% and that's exactly about right. We'll get to the bat shaped elephant with an S on his chest more clearly in a minute but if you want a demonstration of how the RT algorithm largely works compare that to the other big comic book clash of the year which has now dropped to 27% to see how if something is of quality it will be rewarded with the reviews to match (unless you're of the mind that the entire critical corpus are all on the take from MARVEL to give positive reviews to their films and damn DC in which case this will simply confirm your worst fears).

Needless to say there will be spoilers in this listicle shaped discussion and it is one of those films which works best without any foreknowledge. There's at least one moment I wish I hadn't known about beforehand which is still amazing, but not quite as much first time as it might have been if it had come as the surprise it was meant to be. But genre websites have to attract the clicks and so it was they decided to include this moment in the headline of the article and so the content of a tweet. But unlike Bus Dodge where its best moments were the film, CA:CW is so rich in moments that there were about a hundred other things and incidents and stuff that are equally terrific. Make no mistake, this is the film Age of Ultron should have been (and I was less critical of Joss's nightmare than most people).


One of the fears that I think most of us had going into this was that it seemed like it was going to be The Avengers 2.5 and there is an argument that this is certainly the case. But it's also quite coherently Iron Man 4 and yet it still also manages to keep Cap as the focus character in his own film providing a coherent conclusion to his trilogy, paying off bits of story set in motion back in The First Avenger whilst also setting the scene for the upcoming phase of MARVEL films. If Age of Ultron felt like just another episode in the series, this is more like the mid-season finale as it also simultaneously pays off events from numerous other films along the way. You probably couldn't watch the three Cap films and feel like you've seen a coherent story but none of the MARVEL films function that way.

Notice how the Russos somehow manage to give each of their characters a "moment of charm" for want of a better description or at least a story beat which furthers their narrative within the MCU whilst also justifying their appearance in the film. None of the superhero characters at least feel like cameos with the possible exception of Ant-Man although even his gigantor scene and subsequent incarceration will have potential implications for his sequel. There's no especial reason why Vision and Scarlet Witch should have a bit of romance here, but it provides each of them some motivation going forward, not least Vis whose character arc is surely going to mirror TNG's Data as his artificial intelligence slowly absorbs humanity and investigates what it is to be a sentient being. Including wearing their clothes.

But the ballsiness of the finale in which it seems as though in the expected MARVEL way bygones will be bygones and then everything's turned around and we're given the fight we all turned up to see. Compare this to Bus Dodge in which the expected fight squibbles after two hours of build up. In this, they fight, they fight and then they fight some more as MARVEL fearlessly trashes friendships and the status quo of its universe because that's what the story is about. I was reminded of the anti-regeneration gun in Doctor Who's The Last of the Time Lords. The shift between the expectations as to what was going to be the ending and would have been in the hands of lesser film makers and what occurs is the Hollywood blockbuster equivalent of Martha's giggle.


If there's a problem and this is the 7%, it's that although the film portrays this as both Iron Man and Cap having valid arguments for being on both sides of the Sarcovia accord, given the death and destruction, Iron Man's is the correct end of the argument. There has to be oversight. Even in imperfect systems you can't have vigilantism. It's not perfect and the people making the decisions won't always get it wrong, but as is established, it's not about the superbeings becoming America's police force but the UN's. Which isn't to say there isn't nuance but what's interesting about the script is that it doesn't take sides on the issue so it's entirely possible that someone else would come away from the film with Cap's freedom argument. In the end I'm siding with Romanov.

Notice how the discussion is roughly similar to that in Bus Dodge.  But whereas Batman's solution was to annihilate Superman, here it's about control.  Superheroes begat death and destruction and arguably more supervillains so something has to happen.  The SHIELD comic had a pretty good solution for this, making Coulson an expert in superheroes and having him decide who to deploy and where to the best of their abilities.  Perhaps in the first Infinity War film we'll see a version of this as Tony deploys whatever team he's managed to construct from people willing to sign the accord (whilst simultaneously demonstrating there's life in the mega team idea once he and the rest of this lot have retired).

Agent Carter.

"Oh Peg." I said quietly as Cap received the news. Arguably having Agent Carter die off camera is a bit undignified, but despite what the Russos say about the television sections of the franchise, there has to have been a certain element of not wanting to dampen whatever might be happening with the television series. But historical dramas are often about dead people and Howard Stark was already established as having gone even before he wandered into that series. My next thought was whether Jarvis was still about and of course he is in spirit. Meanwhile are we suppose to assume Bucky dated or at least tried to date Dottie Underwood? Is that one of the reasons he ended up in the Winter Soldier programme. It's all connect isn't it?

Iron Man 4

One of the key threads of the Iron Man films was Tony's relationship with his father and his unresolved issues with people an arms manufacturer who flies around in a humanoid tank. The darkness of Iron Man 3 is finding further fruition here. Some might question why Pepper is kept off screen again, but the producers have realised that their relationship breeds light screwball comedy and tonally the Captain America films, at least the latter two, don't lend themselves to that. We need to see darkly brooding Tony, grey Tony, morally certain Tony and having him spar with Miss Potts would not have felt right. Plus it's difficult to hire Paltrow and then not give her a story to service especially in the film where one of the rules seems to be "no cameos".


Just right. Unless Homecoming is a complete mess, I think this is probably going to be the big screen portrayal of Spider-man which will finally nail it. The Raimi films did the spectacle whilst getting Peter completely wrong and fucking up the structure of the first film. Andrew Garfield was near perfect in the role but was ill served by the films his performance was housed in as Sony misguidedly attempted to spin their own cinematic universe around him. Spidey has always been at his best when he's had other superhumans to but up against, trade notes and so it proves here. Say what you like about producing yet another screen version of the character when TAS2 hasn't even finished its initial streaming cycle, but his appearance in CA:CW more than justifies it.

Notice the economy with which he's introduced, in a long conversation with Tony which hints towards his origin story, Peter keeping something back, the radio active spider bite (we assume) having occurred six months before. But the details which hint towards the future, the retro technology in his room fished out of dumpsters expressing his poverty, no parents, May bringing him up (isn't Marissa Tomei fabulous?) alone having also lost her husband. Part of that is an adaptation from the comics, but Feige has said that John Hughes will be a key influence on the Spider-Man films and they're already laying the ground work here, as we find a set up not too dissimilar in mood to Pretty in Pink or Some Kind of Wonderful.

There's also his personality which is arguably "young Deadpool" but that just shows how closely they're following what can be found in the comics and in the television cartoons. Plus it's not just he's cracking jokes, he's funny and overawed about meeting all of these heroes and even getting to fight them. This is just how such encounters were portrayed in the comics. We'll see how much of the rest of the comics will be transferred to the screen. As the Garfield films found and Bus Dodge, having had a different adaptation pilfer all the good bits, it's a big ask for the audience to so quickly sit through an alternative version. I'd be quite happy for the Daily Bugle to not even appear in his films, although they will come up against the problem of natural aging. He can't stay in school for the next ten years (or however long his trilogy takes).

Agents of SHIELD.

The Russos have made it perfectly clear they don't give a toss about SHIELD and yet SHIELD does have to give a toss about Civil War.  Channel 4 are a bit behind the US in screenings so lord knows what effect all of this business will have on their affairs though it'll probably be less than The Winter Soldier which arguably changed the premise of the series.  Presumably the expectation for the Secret Warriors to register will intensify so it's possibly that Daisy et al will decide to break away from SHIELD and go their own way.  But the walled gardens between the various bits of the franchise are interesting.  How does this registration business effect Daredevil?  Or Jessica Jones?  Or the rest of The Defenders?  One of the ambiguities of the film is the extent to which the accord affects just The Avengers or all superpowered beings as per the comics.

Where do we go from here?

Unlike Age of Ultron, this was mostly about closing off Cap's story for the most part and setting up Spider-Man and Black Panther (and notice how his film doesn't have to be an origin story either now).  Vision mentions his jewel so that's still bubbling under but unlike AoU with Thor's bath et al, there's nothing especially new added to those storylines.  Looking at the slate it looks like stand alone films will alternate with films setting up the Infinity War, notably Guardians and Thor (although not really since Strange, Spidey and Panther are sure to participate).  It's interesting that The Inhumans has been postponed.  My guess is there's some hedge betting going on for post Avengers 3.2.  Any of these projects could be failures and the backlash could start against these films.  The box office on Civil War is going to be very interesting to watch.

2 local government platforms someone should just build by Richard Pope

1) Where things are (as a platform)

Reuse the datastore and editing tools behind open streetmap and use it to start managing geographical data (parks, opening times, protected views, lamposts) for a single council. Then give a login to people from other councils and get them to do the same. Use the tagging system to drive out what is common between councils and what differs

2) Things that are happening at a location (as a platform)

Lots of local notices (planning applications, parking suspensions, licencing applications) can be boiled down to:

A thing is going to happen

Here's a description of that thing happening

  • It's happening at 51.5007, -0.1246
  • It's happening at 2016-04-28
  • It was a thing of type X
  • Here's a link to more information about the thing:

Someone should build something that handles this use-case and encourage others to use it. There would be immediate value without getting bogged down in modelling every possible type of planning application and process (that should come later).

Releasing the Fairphone 2 Open Operating System by Fairphone blog

Note from the editor: We wrote this post to be accessible to everyone, no matter how technical you are. If you are a developer and want to dive straight into the finer details, head over to

It’s finally here! Today we’re publishing our own version of Android for everyone to download and to install on their Fairphone 2. The launch of this open operating system is our next step in achieving our goals to improve transparency, longevity and ownership. (Read a more detailed explanation of our open design goals).

At the start of 2016, we launched, our open source and development website. By publishing the source code, we invited everyone and anyone to contribute to the ecosystem of the Fairphone 2. Making this code run on a Fairphone 2 required some technical skills, and today we’re taking the next step by making the code available in an easy-to-use form, so anyone can download and install it. But what is it exactly?

Our own Fairphone Open Source OS

The Fairphone Open Source OS includes the standard Android operating system (version 5.1) plus all the special Fairphone features. Google Mobile Services (GMS) are NOT included, so you will need to find alternatives for things like email, maps, a browser and more. Once you start looking, you’ll be surprised by how many options are available, such as F-Droid, an alternative app store. Also, in this version, root access can be easily enabled via the developer settings.

Going forward, the Fairphone Open Source OS will get the same support, regular updates and security fixes as the “normal” Fairphone OS with Google services, but please be aware that there may be a short timespan between releasing an update for each version in a given cycle.

Important: No matter how excited you are, make sure you take the proper steps before downloading and installing the Fairphone Open Source OS, as doing so will erase all of your data. Back up your apps and data beforehand to avoid major frustrations later.

But the source code itself is just part of the story. Keep reading to learn more about why we’re making it available, and why we think it’s so important.

What does open source mean for you?

Transparency: A phone that’s got nothing to hide

With plenty of products, software included, when you buy the finished item you don’t know much about what’s required to make it, let alone how to modify it. To understand the benefits of open source, you can compare it to a recipe. Imagine you order a delicious soup at your favorite restaurant. You’d love to know what’s in it, but first you need to convince the chef to share his recipe. And once you get it, it opens up a new range of possibilities. You can learn about the ingredients, try to recreate it yourself, or start making changes and substitutions to suit your preferences. And even if you’re not a cook (aka a developer), you can share the recipe or collaborate with experts to gather advice and improvements.

While we’d love to open up absolutely everything, we can’t provide the code for some of the “ingredients” (called binaries) provided by other companies that make specific parts of the hardware work. But by sharing our software “recipe”, we’re taking the next step to put the information and power in your hands. It’s up to you to decide if you want to view it, share it, tweak it or add something completely new.

Ownership: A phone that’s yours, and only yours

Out of the box, your Fairphone 2 comes pre-installed with Android 5.1, which includes Google Mobile Services. These apps and services are very popular and definitely useful, but we believe that to have true ownership of your phone, you should be able to make a conscious decision about what software you’d like to run.

If you are comfortable with Google Mobile Services and like how they work, then you can choose to stick with the default operating system. But we want that choice to be completely yours. That’s why we’ve made it possible for you to install different operating systems on your phone (meaning the bootloader is unlocked).

At the moment, you can pick between two different options: The default OS or the Fairphone Open Source OS. These are the only systems we can officially support for now. However, thanks to the development efforts of other software communities, it may soon be possible to use other operating systems like Jolla’s Salfish in the future.

When deciding which OS is right for you, another important factor to consider is what you and your apps are allowed to do. This is determined in part by root access, which can be beautiful, but it can also be dangerous. Therefore, root access is not supported in the default software your Fairphone 2 ships with. (We are aware this decision is arguable, but we believe it is the best for the majority of users). If you would like to have root access, we advise you to move to the Fairphone Open Source OS. Once you install this build, you can easily enable root access under the developer settings.

Longevity: The phone that stays with you for years to come

The Fairphone 2’s modular design was made for DIY repair. By selling spare parts and providing repair guides (thanks, iFixit!), we aim to make it easy for anyone to fix their phone. But keeping your phone performing well for years to come requires more than just replacing parts.

The other crucial element for your phone’s longevity is software. As time goes by, it needs to be updated and patched and security holes have to be fixed. We’re taking responsibility for keeping the default Fairphone 2 software running smoothly, but with this open source release, we’re also making it possible for external parties and developers to contribute to keeping the software up to date.

In addition, other developer communities are now able to make alternative operating systems work with your phone. As we mentioned above, a community version of Sailfish OS is already available.

We believe that our open source build combined with a wider choice of operating systems will provide greater diversity to ensure that you can use the phone much longer without being restricted to the updates provided by our own software team. And even though we don’t have the capacity in house to support your questions about these different operating systems, you can always turn to the relevant developer communities.

May the source be with you

Whether you’re looking for a straightforward default operating system or can’t wait to dig around in the code, we hope you now have a clearer idea why we’re releasing the Fairphone Open Source OS and collaborating with a range of developer communities. If you’re now curious to learn more, head straight to for everything you need to start tinkering. And in case you get stuck, don’t be afraid to post your questions on the community forum.

We are also working on a system to accept community contributions (yes, there will be a public Gerrit for code review), and allow for more people to contribute to the code. Stay tuned!

What NASA Can Learn from SpaceX by The Planetary Society

SpaceX's announcement that it will send Dragon capsules to Mars demonstrates the advantage of having a clear plan to explore the red planet. NASA should take note.

The phases of the far side of the Moon by The Planetary Society

Serbian artist Ivica Stošić used Clementine and Kaguya data to give a glimpse of the phases of the lunar farside.

Shuttle tank, meet canal: Engineering wonders cross paths in Panama by The Planetary Society

Two modern engineering marvels crossed paths this week here in Central America, as the last unflown space shuttle external fuel tank passed through the Panama Canal during a multi-week voyage from New Orleans to Los Angeles.

April 28, 2016

"If you read me, we're going to attempt time travel." by Feeling Listless

Art The biannual press conference announcing the content of the Liverpool Biennial was held yesterday but I couldn't attend due to a work commitment in Manchester and a talk at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art about contemporary Hong Kong artwork inspired by the umbrella revolution.

They were good enough to send me a length press release which I've skimmed so as not to have too much of an idea of what to expect until it begins in July so here's the brilliant Vanessa Wheeler at The Double Negative with an excellent survey of what's to come:

"This Biennial will be based on the theme of Time Travel and be split into six episodes: Ancient Greece, Chinatown, Children, Monuments of the Future, Flashback, and Software. Each episode, said festival director Sally Tallant at press conferences in Liverpool and London, is a like a fictional genre: confined within itself, but still overlapping with other works to create a mesh of cross-disciplinary art in locations throughout the city. Visitors to the biannual 14-week festival can look forward to a wide-ranging and sometimes bizarre mix of ancient and futuristic sculpture, performance art inspired by medical marvels, a look into the art of smuggling, and an abundance of fantastic fringe events."
Which all sounds a bit more coherent and interesting than the last Biennial which I think you probably detected at the time I was rather disappointed with.  This edition feels more spread out and within the city in a similar way to Biennials of old when there was an excitement to discovering exhibitions and public art works in unusual spaces.

Sensors in the sky by Goatchurch

Well, the hang-gliding has been quite lovely. But the logger appears shot to pieces.
I still don’t know what I am doing when I get to cloud-base, which is probably why I plummeted out of the sky shortly after this picture was taken.

As soon as I took off, the barometer stopped communicating most of its data.
This is the device I lavished so much time on isolating it from the rest of the electrical circuit and arranging for it to bitbash the information back through an interrupt pin.

It could be some timing issue, or whatnot. No way to debug it. Luckily I got myself a Bluefly vario which does the same thing of reading a MS5611 barometer on a tight 50Hz loop and transmitting it back to the main board. In the Bluefly’s case it’s for the purpose of running a Kobo/XCsoar system. I’ve just given up on the one I built as it’s too inferior to simply running XCSoar on the phone where I’ve got colour and more or less know how to use it.

Luckily the Bluefly also sports a GPS and works through a serial port, so I’ve yanked off the Adafruit GPS breakout board and bodged the wires to insert the Bluefly in its place.
Then there was a small matter coding it up using a complex state machine to program the GPS module through the Bluefly pic processor to get it to read at 10 times a second.

But then the BNO055 orientation sensor played up and decides to shutdown at unexplained moments for unexplained periods of time.
The white vertical lines are 10 minute intervals, and there is a green dot for every successful orientation reading, with y-value proportional to the time since the previous reading, so I’m getting gaps in the data of half an hour in flight.

I’ve produced a reset timer to try and start it off again if no data comes through for 20 seconds.

Anyways, here is one of those nerve-wracking close encounters with the ground during the flight.

You only deserve to get away with one of these low-saves on a flight where you should be staying up. I got a total of 45kms downwind to Church Stoke. It then took 4 hours of local bus rides to get back to Llangollen, half an hour to walk up the hill, and an hour to drive off to get my glider. Then I drove to Sheffield to stay with someone for the night. Tried to go out flying the following day and it rained. Meanwhile, distance records of 300km had been set on that day. “Piano, piano,” Adrian said in Italian. Little by little.

Meantime, here’s the altitude vs humidity graph (green for up motions, red for down motions); vertical lines are 100m, horizontal lines at 10%. Max altitude was 1600m. Oddly the humidity didn’t get to 100% even though I got above the clouds in places (though not in them). Cloudbase seemed to have various altitudes. Or the accuracy of the device is shoddy.

We can do the same with temperature (horizontals are degreesC, the red line is 0degC)
Zoomed in, with points where the glider was climbing in green, and descending in red.
This does potentially give the first evidence for the thermic air being half a degree warmer — if we believe it. It could also simply be sensor lag, as the ifferent temperatures match if shifted 50m in altitude, which provides an average of the previous 100m, which would have taken about one minute to move through. This would be quite a lag, so maybe I believe it. The signal is quite noisy, possibly due in part to the inaccuracy of GPS altitudes, but unfortunately I’ve got no barometric pressure records to correct it.

Anyway, here is the track from the start of the flight with north to the left:

There was a north wind blowing at about 7.4m/s. This is the trace if you subtract this wind vector:
This has me flying against the wind for a long while (which was when I was ridge soaring on the Llangollen hill), then drifting with the wind on the first thermal (which means staying in place on this diagram), flying directly cross wind and then downwind a bit (in humongous sink) to get a second thermal that I chased upwind for part of the way, until finally a gradual heading downwind through four crappy thermals down to the ground.

This shows that first big thermal up to cloudbase followed by that really vicious period of descent of between 3 and 4m/s for 3 minutes where I basically dumped 600m before I knew what was going on (vertical lines are minutes, horizontal lines are metres per second(m/s) gradients).

There’s actually a bit more to the causation of what went wrong at this point on this flight. I’d thought I’d be smart and try to aim for a series of waypoints, the first one of which was Moelfre Gyrn about 11km away at the yellow circle in the bottom right.
As soon as I got up high I aimed for it reasonably convincingly. By keeping the arrow on the flight computer aiming for it, I was actually heading directly cross wind (according to the compensated wind drift). In the diagram the blue dots are points of descent of between 2 and 3m/s, yellow is between 3 and 4m/s and red is greater than 4m/s going down fast.

From the end of leaving the first thermal at the top of the picture in the space of 2.7minutes I dropped 209m and covered 2.4km, which is not so bad. Then in the next 0.9minutes I dropped 175m covering 0.9km. So I panicked and turned downwind and dropped 313m in the next 1.6minutes covering 1.9km. The altitude was now 856m, and the Moelfre waypoint was 510m high. I dumped my stupid plan and headed towards sunshine and lower ground, where I should have gone in the first place.

Plotting what I think is the glider orientation on that descent (with an 11m long whisker) it seems to indicate that I was actually pointing upwind for some of it. The whisker shortens in the greatest descent areas (red dots) as though the nose is pointing more downwards. Was I trying to speed up and get away? Doesn’t work so well on an intermediate glider like mine.
Below is the point where I was going downwind and suddenly found some lift to start circling in.

This does suggest I could have a downwind detector that says to turn left or right according to which way the nose is pointing in relation to the GPS direction of travel.

I was still intending to find a way to calculate the local wind direction from the data available, but I can’t do it with this flight as I forgot the windspeed meter.

To recap, the whole point of this project is to find out what can be done with a set of the latest sensors, and whether they can help do something interesting, such as get me to have more and better hang-gliding flights. That’s a pretty good motivation to keep at when I am pounding my head against this wall. Many sensor projects go nowhere when they face the reality of deriving anything actionable from the data collected.

In my case the events take place over minutes and hours, and the actions of where to fly to next have my ongoing undivided attention. This is quite different to most sensor monitoring projects where you lay out some sensors in a building or a town, record stuff over a couple of days or months, and then you really don’t have much option to do anything with it because it’s now old and anyway doesn’t pertain to something you can very much control.

Even with this advantage I’ve still not got very far. The ideas are presently getting thin on the ground.

April 27, 2016

Soup Safari #64:Thai Chicken Soup at British Home Stores. by Feeling Listless

Late Lunch. £3.95. British Home Stores, Manchester Arndale Shopping Centre, 57 Market St, Manchester M1 1WN. Phone: 0161 834 1151. Website.

PSA: 5-Point Writer's Block Checklist by Charlie Stross

My name is M Harold Page ("Martin" is actually fine) and I don't really believe in Writers Block.

Yes, OK, it does describe a situation: "Oh look, there's a writer banging their head on the desk and weeping with frustration(OMG is that blood?)"

And that was me for the last couple of months. My productivity plummeted. The contract I was working on seemed complicated and hard to focus on...

Then I had a very overdue eye test and the optician regarded my current reading glasses and said, "I wouldn't be wearing those."

It wasn't my brain. It wasn't my Fickle Muse (Oh The Angst). It was my damned eyes.

Not getting around for my eye test had cost me weeks of productivity and even begun to trigger self doubt. Was I really able to hack it as a writer? Would it make me happy?

Stupid! Stupid! STUPID!

Except when I started talking to other people about this, they had similar stories. External stuff - illness, eyes, depression, RSI - seeps into our lives in imperceptible increments. We're like a lobster going, "Ooo. Seafood! Where is that nice smell is coming from?" We don't realise we're the one being cooked until too late!

And that's the wider experience. Writer's block always turns out to be either some issue with skill, or else some non-writing specific issue revealed by the attempt to write.

So, inspired by the Checklist Manifesto, here's a checklist to get you out of the cooking pot. I've listed the most common issues first, but they are, alas, not mutually exclusive...

1. Is your literary skillset broken?

In aspiring and new writers, "blocked" usually just means, "stymied by some deficiency in craft". I got some evil looks when I declared this on a panel recently, but it's true and it's the embarrassing story of the first decade of my serious attempts to write.

Do you actually know how to write your story? Really? Some of it you can learn on the job, but if that's not working you need to look at similar published books with an analytical eye, and perhaps read some good writing books*. 

*This is obviously the moment to pimp my book on writing, as praised by Hannu Rajaniemi and Ken McLeod. However if you are penniless and send me a nice email, you can have one of a limited number of free copies; it was written in part as a letter to my miserable younger self, so sharing it gives me some sense of closure.

2. Is your story broken?

If you're going round in circles with a chapter or scene, something else is usually wrong.

Typically, the problem is either (a) further back - you need to add things to Chapter 3 to make Chapter 7 work (don't rewrite at this stage, just make a note) - or (b) further up, at a higher level of abstraction, which is a nice way of saying that your plot doesn't have enough interesting conflict. (Yes, see above for a link to my book.)

3. Is your writing setup broken?

If you put in a lot of hours writing, there's a good chance that the real reason your writing is grinding to a halt is that your typing chair is uncomfortable or that you need new glasses (blush), or that your monitor needs replacing, or your space is badly lit, or wrongly lit or... Gradually you become reluctant to sit down and work, or quickly exhausted when you do.

So check your ergonomics, have your eyes tested, update your writing machine, be realistic about your writing space. Whatever it takes.

4. Are you broken?

It's hard to work creatively when you are operating below par, e.g. because you are ill, depressed, stressed by work, or in need of a holiday.  This is all miserable stuff, but approached pragmatically (rather than sympathetically), it divides up into the following:

Temporarily Broken - Work sucks at the moment. Your granny just died. You have flu. You just became a parent... None of this will last. It's time to take a break and sort yourself out. In the mean time, feed your creativity by reading books you enjoy, or by researching around your storyworld. 

Forcing yourself to write can just result in spewing out drivel that you subsequently delete or waste days untangling and then delete anyway.

Long Term Broken - You have ME or MS... You are in an ongoing battle with depression or cancer... Or you're just trapped in a dysfunctional work or domestic situation... Whatever it is, it's nothing that you can just fix. (Nor can you just buck yourself up and get on with it or [insert unthinking crass advice here usually relating to diet or copper bracelets].)

People do write successfully despite this kind of thing. You don't have to - perhaps you have enough on your plate? - but assuming you want to...

The people who manage it appear to work around rather than despite whatever the problem is. This takes discipline, opportunism - working when you can! - but also help from other people. It means relying on partners to give you space when you need it, and on beta readers to boost your productivity by acting as a second brain. And it can mean doing a mental judo trick where the writing becomes a refuge. 

5. Is your mental approach broken?

This is the one that people leap at because it's what writers are supposed to do: angst, wallow in self doubt, agonise about single sentences.

I left this until last for a reason. There's this bug in humans that we misattribute feelings;  we bond when drunk or high, we fall in love on holiday, we think our life is crap when we have flu. So your crippling performance anxiety, your imposter syndrome, your fear of exposing your inner self to the scrutiny of the reading public? They might all be spurious explanations for not being able to work - go recheck points 1-4.

Then again, these feelings might be entirely real.

Though not unique to writing, writing has a unique way of pinging them. And perhaps there's something about writers that tends to make us vulnerable. People who want to sit quietly in private and type stories aren't necessarily thick-skinned extroverts and "just do-it" extreme life hackers. Often we don't have much experience of putting ourselves "out there" and writing being a private thing, we don't have many role models to hand.

There's lots of advice around on how to deal with what Steve Pressfield calls "resistance". To my British sensibilities, it all sounds like what you'd get if Rambo became an evangelical preacher; it goes against the grain to Make A Fuss. However, a Stiff Upper Lip won't help much because that means giving mental real estate to these unuseful feelings. Instead, let me offer two suggestions that work for me:

First, try not to do the angsting and creating at the same time. Make a deal with yourself that nothing goes out the door until you've thought about. Do the writing for fun and make the quality control a different task entirely. I call this "hiding behind the next draft".

Second, try to get a realistic handle on what competent writing looks like in your chosen genre. If you have an objective yardstick, your writing won't feel so sucky...

...which takes us back to #1 Is your skillset broken?

M Harold Page is the sword-wielding author of books like Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: "Holy ****!") and is planning some more historical fiction. For his take on writing,  read Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic (Ken MacLeod: "...very useful in getting from ideas etc to plot and story." Hannu Rajaniemi: "...find myself to coming back to [this] book in the early stages.")

The Senate Just Proposed to Slash Planetary Science Funding by The Planetary Society

The Senate has released its draft of NASA's 2017 budget which, despite increasing NASA's top-line by $300 million, would cut $270 million from the Planetary Science Division. Here's why we shouldn't worry—yet.

Field Report From Mars: Sol 4333 - April 1, 2016 by The Planetary Society

Opportunity has climbed west and up Marathon Valley in one of the final campaigns before moving on and beginning the summer field activities to the south southward.

April 26, 2016

The Truth. by Feeling Listless

Life Usually the route of my walk to work just bypasses St George's Hall, but I made a special detour so that I could walk across the plateau on this historic day for the city. As you will have seen from the television pictures, ninety-six lanterns have been placed at the bottom of the steps, each representing someone who died at the Hillsborough disaster. As passed by, a cherry picker was replacing banners hung from the top of the columns at the front of the building, which this morning simply listed the names of the victims, yes, the victims, and now have those important words, "truth" and "justice".

A big screen has also been erected, tuned to the BBC, because the rival news channel covering the event would beyond the pale in a moment like this.  Ben Brown, outside the court in Warrington read the names of those victims with their revised times of death, far longer than the 3:15 cut-off arbitrarily applied at the first inquest.  I noticed someone weeping, but otherwise an eerie calm, except for the traffic on St John's Lane and the tramping shoes of the media rushing to the scene, perhaps to ready correspondents for the lunchtime news.

But this isn't the end, these things don't end.  Those people will never return.  Their families who've suffered further through media and political smears, the cover-ups of officials, the fight to be heard, to have this inquest and its verdict will have taken its toll.  It arguably killed someone of them, the tragedy compounded by those who've died since, because it's taken so long, no knowing that the battle wasn't in vain, that vindication would come.  Now it has.

* * * * *

Back in 2012 when the Hillsborough report was published I wrote the following and since it covers most of my other feelings it seems appropriate to repeat it here. I hope you don't mind:

Originally posted: Wednesday, September 12, 2012

I wasn’t at Hillsborough. I was still something of a football fan so was watching on television. Even though I was in my early teens, my memory of the day is sketchy. I remember watching the disaster unfold in the famous footage which has reappeared on news reports in the intervening years including those related to today’s release of documents. I remember listening to the local radio stations which were the main source of news as the day went on, their schedules dumped in favour of poignant music and public service statements. I remember crying through the memorial service at the cathedral which was also broadcast live.

It wasn’t until I reached university that I realised the inaccurate perception of the disaster held amongst some people outside of Liverpool. It was in my first year, in halls, 1994. A group of us were in the room of a friend from the Birmingham area at around the time of that year’s fifth anniversary in April. I think I’d noticed that he’d bought The Sun and commented on Liverpool’s decade long boycott of the paper, how some newsagents refused to stock it or at least put it on display because of that notorious headline and the lies ironically hidden beneath. There were few chairs in the room, I remember. I was sitting on the floor, him on a computer chair.

“The Sun’s report was accurate,” he said to just the wrong person to say it to on just the wrong day. “I know it was because I know people who were there and they saw it happen.” I was too shocked to be angry, but a couple of decades later I can still remember the feeling of not knowing quite what to say. It’s worth noting this wasn’t some friendship breaking conversation. I knew he was an ignorant person from other things he’d said previously, things he’d done. But he was part of the group and so he was a friend. Sometimes “friend” can have many meanings. Nevertheless, I was surprised that he could be of this opinion.

Of course I tried to give the opposing argument, of course I did. Under questioning, I think it was the case the people he knew who were there turned out to be friends of friends of friends, not a direct conversation so indeed he had no proof in what he said. But he was vociferous in that way he could be, parroting out the allegations from The Sun’s original story to the point that it could only be that the source of his belief was the paper’s report passed along from ear to ear until it became “The Truth” in the minds of the people hearing and speaking about it. I understood then just how widely this version of “The Truth” was believed.

Watching the Prime Minister’s statement on the report and subsequent apology in parliament about an hour ago, I wondered if my friend was also watching. As David Cameron offered the shocking synopsis of the report’s findings and how little truth there was in The Sun’s story I wondered if my friend and all of the people like him would finally face up to the fact that everything they thought was wrong. I wondered if they understood the hurt those beliefs caused and that in perpetuating them, they increased the hurt of the families and the people of Liverpool. I’m also pleased that the actual truth can now be understood.

Why most businesses aren't playing chess and aren't generals. by Simon Wardley

When you start playing chess, you quickly discover there's a lot of learning to be done from the rules, to the gameplay to even your competitors behaviour. What is absolutely central to this learning is the board itself.

When you look at a board, it has certain characteristics which enable learning :-

1) It is visual, though with play you tend to create a mental model and don't need to see the board
2) It is context specific i.e. the game in hand which enables us to learn from one game to another
3) It has an anchor which is the board itself which enables consistency
4) You have the position of pieces relative to the anchor i.e. position on the board
5) You can visualise movement.

Now with these characteristics, you can even determine the rules of game by simply just playing it. However imagine an alternative view such as a box and wire diagram.

The diagram is certainly visual and context specific. It has a form of position (i.e. connectedness between pieces) though no anchor and no way of visualising movement. You cannot use such a diagram to effectively learn the rules of the game or even gameplay.

If two players met using these different forms then, well it should be obvious who will tend to win especially over time.

Now think of a military map. Again the same characteristics appear. It's visual, it's context specific (the battle at hand), it has position relative to an anchor (the compass) and you can visualise movement.

It's easy to navigate with the above and correct where the map is wrong i.e. head NW from Athens for a distance of 90 miles and you'll find Thebes is actually further west. You can improve the map and share with others.

The characteristics of the map also help us to learn forms of battle e.g. flanking movement, pincer, the use of landscape and force multipliers to name but a few. You could of course represent the environment in a different form e.g.

The above is certainly visual, it is context specific, it has movement but without a meaningful and consistent anchor then we have no real position. It's difficult to work out how to go from Athens to Thebes in the above diagram other than "move from slightly rocky to further from the coast and more agricultural". That could be in any direction and so we don't really understand the relationship between things.

Imagine two generals fighting a war with these two different visualisations. It should be fairly obvious who is going to have the upper hand and who is going to have troops wandering around  the countryside going "where are we?"

In both the chess and military map example, the difference between the two visualisations is the quality of situational awareness (i.e. our ability to understand the landscape, our competitors and anticipate change).

If you can visualise a context specific environment with both position and movement then you will have a higher quality of situational awareness than someone who cannot. You will be able to more effectively communicate and determine strategy, it will enable greater co-ordination and alignment but most importantly you will be able to learn context specific gameplay, universally applicable doctrine and the rules of the game more effectively. 

When fighting those using a vastly lower quality of situational awareness then you will thrash opponents over and over. They'll spend most of their time trying to get their troops walking in the same direction assuming they can even work out what direction they should be heading.

If you look at an organisation, it's a melting point of people, activities, practices and data and to understand it you will need a visualisation that is context specific (not all organisations and markets are the same) with both position and movement. 

You can use such a map to co-ordinate, to align, to organise, from operations to capability and even determine and communicate strategy in much the same way you can use any map to do this. You can also use Wardley maps to learn context specific gameplay, doctrine and the rules of the game.

So, here's the rub. The overwhelming majority of companies have no maps of their business or competitive environment. They have lots of things they call maps (i.e. box and wire diagrams) but whilst they might be visual and somewhat context specific (if you're lucky), they invariably do not have position and movement. On the rare occasion they have some form of position, they generally don't have a consistent anchor.

As a result if you walk into a businesses you can normally discover symptoms of this such as concerns over lack of alignment, communication problems, difficulty in determining strategy (which as a consequence deteriorates to simple meme copying, gut feel and highest paid person's opinion) and almost without exception there is no mechanism of learning.  

In the worst examples when these companies are under pressure, the symptoms turn into desperate wishful thinking and almost praying to memes to save them i.e. "if we [fix the culture / fix the structure / build an ecosystem /  go agile / go digital etc etc] then we'll be alright"

Fortunately for them, many of these companies survive because this situation often occurs across entire industries. It's ok to suck as long as your competitors do. As a result a small company like Adallom can use a bit of actual situational awareness to just walk into the security industry and help itself to a $300M+ exit or a company like Canonical (i.e. Ubuntu) can just help itself to the cloud industry without barely a shot fired by past giants. You should have no fear of large companies in most industries though there are the obvious ones to avoid (e.g. Amazon).

"But I have a map" I often here people cry and then show me a strategy map or a business process map or a trend map or a value stream map or a 2x2 such as a SWOT. No, you have a nice diagram which has very niche uses and can be extremely useful in those niches.  However without position and movement then whilst it's better than nothing it's certainly not what I'd be using for strategic play, co-ordination, communication, learning and organisation.

Examples of things which are often called maps but are not what I would consider optimal for strategic play and learning (including reasons) :-

Business Process Maps

I happen to like business process maps. Often the anchors can be very wobbly but because they lack movement they aren't very useful for strategy, organisation or communicating direction. However, very good for understanding the "as is" and extremely helpful in building maps.

Strategy Maps

Very useful for thinking about elements involved but without movement then not very helpful in terms of strategy and learning. Quite good at exposing what the company "thinks" is important and sometimes useful in exposing user needs.

Value Stream Mapping

Excellent for flow and one of my favourite (NB, you can determine flow in Wardley maps). Still, I like value stream maps but you have to be really careful not to go around making the ineffective more efficient. Also not much use for strategy or learning context specific play because there is no movement. However, good at what they do i.e. improving flow.

Tube maps, Trend Maps etc.

Lots of different variations on these. Perfectly fine for discussing opinions on future trends but from a strategy, operational, organisation and communication point of view then next to useless. Usually a random categorisation of things without context, position or movement. Can be helpful in getting people to agree on a taxonomy and usually provides a useful list of things to think about

I'm afraid, despite the pretence ... most businesses aren't playing anything like a game of chess and most are acting like generals who think that understanding the environment is not important and that the key to success is to copy what 67% of other generals are doing.  Look! They're bombing hills. Go find a hill so we can bomb it! They've got a Chief Bombing Hill Officer, quick, lets employ a CBHO!

Just go find someone from the military and ask "Do you think situational awareness is important and are maps useful?"

Gosh, Wardley Maps sound so perfect! (added in response to the comments)

As I've said numerous times before, my maps are Babylonian Clay tablets. They are imperfect, primitive and will be replaced by something better by someone else. This was the point of making the mapping technique creative commons share alike - to show an unencumbered path free from constraints and demands by authors, consultants etc.  I do have a bias towards them (as noted in the comments) because I've been using them for over a decade and so yes, much of what is embodied in a map has become intuitive to me. On that part, the comment is perfectly reasonable.

The maps are fundamentally a communication tool, the only people who can map are yourselves (don't hire consultants) and I'm afraid, it's one of those things you're just going to have to dive in and learn. The only book that I'm aware of that is dedicated to mapping is this one which is provided by the group. It is based upon various of my posts, it is creative commons and no, I'm not involved with them.

However, that said ... yes, the subject matter is complex. There's a lot to learn, in the same way that chess isn't intuitive to the newbie. You can't just sit down and play chess. It takes an awful lot of practice just to get to grips with the game. If you want to embark on this journey, a set of useful posts can be found here.

FAQ: The Laundry Files--series timeline by Charlie Stross

I've been writing Laundry Files stories since 1999, and I recently passed the million word mark. That's a lot of stuff! And it occurs to me that while some of you have been following them from the beginning, a lot of people come to them cold in the shape of one story or another.

So below the fold I'm going to explain the Laundry Files time line, and give a running order for the series—including short stories as well as novels.

Typographic conventions: story titles are rendered in italics (like this). Book titles are presented in boldface (thus).

Publication dates are presented like this: (pub: 2016). The year in which a story is set is presented like so: (set: 2005).

The list is sorted in story order rather than publication order.

The Atrocity Archive (set: 2002; pub: 2002-3)

  • The short novel which started it all. Originally published in an obscure Scottish SF digest-format magazine called Spectrum SF, it ran from 2002 to 2003, and introduced our protagonist Bob Howard, his (eventual) love interest Mo O'Brien, and a bunch of eccentric minor characters and tentacled horrors.

The Concrete Jungle (set: 2003: pub: see below)

  • Novella, set a year after The Atrocity Archive, in which Bob is awakened in the middle of the night to go and count the concrete cows in Milton Keynes. Winner of the 2005 Hugo award for best SF/F novella.

The Atrocity Archives (set 2002-03, pub: 2003 (hbk), 2006 (trade ppbk))

  • A smaller US publisher, Golden Gryphon, liked The Atrocity Archive and wanted to publish it, but considered it to be too short on its own. So The Concrete Jungle was written, and along with an afterword they were published together as a two-story collection/episodic novel, The Atrocity Archives (note the added 's' at the end). A couple of years later, Ace (part of Penguin group) picked up the US trade and mass market paperback rights and Orbit published it in the UK. (Having won a Hugo award in the meantime really didn't hurt; it's normally quite rare for a small press item such as TAA to get picked up and republished like this.)

The Jennifer Morgue (set: 2005, pub: 2007 (hbk), 2008 (trade ppbk))

  • Golden Gryphon asked for a sequel, hence the James Bond episode in what was now clearly going to be a trilogy of comedy Lovecraftian/spy books. Orbit again took UK rights, while Ace picked up the paperbacks. Because I wanted to stick with the previous book's two-story format, I wrote an extra short story:

Pimpf (set: 2006, pub: collected in The Jennifer Morgue)

  • A short story set in what I think of as the Chibi-Laundry continuity; Bob ends up inside a computer running a Neverwinter Nights server (hey, this was before World of Warcraft got big). Chibi-Laundry stories are self-parodies and probably shouldn't be thought of as canonical. (Ahem: there's a big continuity blooper tucked away in this one what comes back to bite me in later books because I forgot about it.)

Down on the Farm (novelette: set 2007, pub. 2008,

  • Novelette: Bob has to investigate strange goings-on at a care home for Laundry agents whose minds have gone. Introduces Krantzberg Syndrome, which plays a major role later in the series.

Equoid (novella: set 2007, pub: 2013,

  • A novella set between The Jennifer Morgue and The Fuller Memorandum; Bob is married to Mo and working for Iris Carpenter. Bob learns why Unicorns are Bad News. Won the 2014 Hugo award for best SF/F novella. Also published as the hardback novella edition Equoid by Subterranean Press.

The Fuller Memorandum (set: 2008, pub: 2010 (US hbk/UK ppbk))

  • Third novel, first to be published in hardback by Ace, published in paperback in the UK by Orbit. The title is an intentional nod to Adam Hall (aka Elleston Trevor), author of the Quiller series of spy thrillers—but it's actually an Anthony Price homage. This is where we begin to get a sense that there's an overall Laundry Files story arc, and where I realized I wasn't writing a trilogy. Didn't have a short story trailer or afterword because I flamed out while trying to come up with one before the deadline. Bob encounters skullduggery within the organization and has to get to the bottom of it before something really nasty happens: also, what and where is the misplaced "Teapot" that the KGB's London resident keeps asking him about?

Overtime (novelette: set 2009, pub 2009,

  • A heart-warming Christmas tale of Terror. Shortlisted for the Hugo award for best novelette, 2010.

Three Tales from the Laundry Files (ebook-only collection)

  • Collection consisting of Down on the Farm, Overtime, and Equoid published the as an ebook.

The Apocalypse Codex (set: 2010, pub: 2012 (US hbk/UK ppbk))

  • Fourth novel, and a tribute to the Modesty Blaise comic strip and books by Peter O'Donnell. A slick televangelist is getting much to cosy with the Prime Minister, and the Laundry—as a civil service agency—is forbidden from investigating. We learn about External Assets, and Bob gets the first inkling that he's being fast-tracked for promotion. Won the Locus Award for best fantasy novel in 2013.

A Conventional Boy (set: ~2011-12, not yet written)

  • Projected interstitial novella, introducing Derek the DM (The Nightmare Stacks) and Camp Sunshine (The Delirium Brief). Not yet written.

The Rhesus Chart (set: spring 2013, pub: 2014 (US hbk/UK hbk))

  • Fifth novel, first of a new cycle remixing contemporary fantasy sub-genres (I got bored with British spy thriller authors). Subject: Banking, Vampires, and what happens when an agile programming team inside a merchant bank develops PHANG syndrome. First to be published in hardcover in the UK by Orbit.

  • Note that the books are now set much closer together. This is a key point: the world of the Laundry Files has now developed its own parallel and gradually diverging history as the supernatural incursions become harder to cover up. Note also that Bob is powering up (the Bob of The Atrocity Archive wouldn't exactly be able to walk into a nest of vampires and escape with only minor damage to his dignity). This is why we don't see much of Bob in the next two novels.

The Annihilation Score (set: summer/autumn 2013, pub: 2015 (US hbk/UK ppbk))

  • Sixth novel, first with a non-Bob viewpoint protagonist—it's told by Mo, his wife. Deals with superheroes, mid-life crises, nervous breakdowns, and the King in Yellow. We're clearly deep into ahistorical territory here as we have a dress circle box for the very last Last Night of the Proms, and Orbit's lawyers made me very carefully describe the female Home Secretary as clearly not being one of her non-fictional predecessors, not even a little bit.

The Nightmare Stacks (set: March-April 2014, pub: June 2016 (US hbk/UK ppbk))

  • Seventh novel, viewpoint character: Alex the PHANG. Deals with, well ... the Laundry has been so obsessed by CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN that they're almost completely taken by surprise when CASE NIGHTMARE RED happens. Features a Maniac Pixie Dream Girl and the return of Bob's Kettenkrad from The Atrocity Archive. Oh, and it also utterly destroys the major British city I grew up in, because revenge is a dish best eaten cold.

The Delirium Brief (set: May-June 2014, pub: due June 2017 (US hbk/UK ppbk))

  • Eighth novel, viewpoint character: Bob again, and no longer pastiching other works or genres. Deals with the aftermath of The Nightmare Stacks; opens with Bob being grilled live on Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman and goes rapidly downhill from there. (I'm guessing that if the events of the previous novel had just taken place, the BBC's leading current affairs news anchor might have deferred his retirement for a couple of months ...)

The Labyrinth Index (set: winter 2014, pub: not confirmed, not yet written)

  • Projected ninth novel, not yet confirmed (possibly pub. June 2019). May be followed by 1-3 further novels.

That's all for now. I'll attempt to update this entry as I write/publish more material.

Boaty McBoatface: A Eulogy by The Leveller

The corpse of an old friend is about to be thrown into the waves. You never met that friend. Nobody ever did. He never knew you existed. But for a few weeks he mattered to you, because one day you felt something, and felt it enough to give him a name: Boaty McBoatface.

It won’t be a totally unceremonious funeral. There will be a certain lifeless maritime dignity to it, as the cadaver is sent on its way by a well-dressed dignitary smashing a champagne bottle into the steely backside of his remains. Whichever weak-chinned skeleton they pick for the ceremony will declare “I name this ship Tory McSourface” in the reedy, nasal way of someone who isn’t used to projecting their voice in a strong coastal breeze. They’ll try to make up for it when they add “may God bless her and all who sail in her”, but the deeper voice they try to affect doesn’t really convince anyone, and so they’ll clap and cheer to smother the awkwardness.

This little coup is all about the pride of a nation

“Still,” they’ll tell each other cheerfully as you numbly watch the stolen carrion cleave through the waves to begin its Important Research Expedition, “at least we dodged the branding nightmare of that ghastly joke name those bloody people suggested!” Their laughter is more bitter than the saltiest spray across the bow, but they feel temporarily calmed because at least they are laughing, because they got away with their theft, and you, you infantile peasant, your silly little joke doesn’t get to sully the history books of this proud island nation.

Because that’s what this little coup is all about, isn’t it? The pride of a nation. Just who are the British? We are sailors! We are audacious! But most importantly, we are sober and rational. Our dignity is famed the world over, with its stiff upper lip and mystique of icy sarcasm. The British may laugh and the British may weep, but it must be done so in silence, behind a handkerchief, because our national character is a global brand, and every brand contains value.

But the British are also thieves. Almost everything we guard so jealously in this pathetic shell of a crumbled empire has been filched from some other poor bastard. From India we strongarmed the finest jewels and claimed that they were a gift, and dared to call our mild and sweetened interpretation of curry a ‘national dish’. From Africa we stole entire people, and had the great philosophers of our liberalism somehow reason that they deserve their enslavement. From America we stole a beloved continent and filled it with the gouty, snot-nosed rejects of our homeland so that they could make their own empire of vapid despair once we were too shagged out to keep it up ourselves. The strong credit rating which afforded us the debt to fund our beloved National Health Service was the result of four centuries of flat out thievery, solidified in bank notes.

Carrying out a funeral for the military officer who never even existed? What utility does that serve? Only nationalism

Meanwhile from our own battered and bruised working class we steal corpses. Boaty McBoatface is far from the first you’ve had torn away from you because the nation claimed to need it. Our police officers were caught stealing the birth certificates of long-dead children and giving their names to undercover cops, who would infiltrate activist groups for years at a time and even have children with them before suddenly vanishing, their identity discarded once they’d gathered the information they need. The borrowed names had enough impact on real lives to literally make new people, who were also cast aside as so much rubbish when the state was done violating their mum.

And the most celebrated work of military espionage in our history is Operation Mincemeat. During the Second World War the Royal Navy lifted from a hospital bed in London the body of a homeless Welshman, Glyndwr Michael, who had ingested rat poison two days earlier, either from committing suicide in despair at his isolation and poverty or, as one theory posits, from picking up breadcrumbs that had been laced with poison to kill vermin. The Navy needed a dead body to float gently toward the coast of Spain, dressed as the invented Major William Martin and carrying fake top secret documents that suggested the Allies planned to invade Greece and Sardinia, when in fact they were headed for Sicily. The plan worked, the fake documents were picked up and believed, and the Germans moved their forces out of the targeted area.

Michael’s death is remembered well because it saved thousands of lives, but also because when they dropped his body into the Atlantic about a mile off the coast of Huelva, they performed a full military funeral – for Major William Martin. The British loved pinching Glyndwr Michael’s bloated remains so much they even made a film about it, celebrating the patriotic utility in Michael’s death that he never had in life, the useless bastard. You grew up watching your father shudder with feeling in front of the telly as Michael’s remains were shoved off a boat and prayers were mumbled, except really you knew, deep down, that the feelings were reserved mostly for Major William Martin, who never even existed.

Ringwraiths and Dementors are not simply dreariness embodied, they are the agents of a structure of villainy that is oppressively boring

That thousands of lives were saved is helpful for this mythology because it helps feed our deference to that great British value, utility. But in truth we only pretend utility; the mysticism of Glyndwr Michael’s erasure is far more ancient and disturbing. Using some otherwise unwanted flesh in that way was necessary if macabre, but carrying out a funeral for the military officer who never even existed? What utility does that serve? Only nationalism. Glyndwr didn’t die for his country, he died from depression. The country just nicked his rotting flesh after the fact and felt the need to desecrate him further by having a nice cry over the poignant fiction of his ‘sacrifice’. Boaty didn’t die because scientists can’t do their job on a ship called Boaty McBoatface, he died merely because some stuck-up tosser said they can’t, which is not the same thing at all.

Cultures speak and are felt though the fictions that they create, and so the most horrifying ghouls of our mythology reoccur in our storytelling. Tolkien’s Ringwraiths didn’t just hunt hobbits and stab people, they were primarily deceivers, offering meaningless power and riches to tempt the weak into serving the forces of darkness. Strikingly similar were Rowling’s awfully functional Dementors, which don’t just suck all the hope out of someone and make them hallucinate their greatest fear, they are also government employees whose job is to enforce good behavior in Azkaban Prison. And the Ringwraiths were satirized by Terry Pratchett in the form of the Auditors, literally spectral bureaucrats of the Universe, ‘as Old as Time’, who arrange the assassination of the Discworld’s version of Santa because they despise the dreams of children. In each fictional world, these vile fantasy creatures are not simply dreariness embodied, they are specifically the agents of a structure of villainy that is oppressively boring.

It is no coincidence that all these demons are the product of British authors.

All our stories scream to us the miserable truth that the British are taught to hate children

I don’t mean to say that we’re especially imaginative. We’re not, otherwise our fantasy monsters wouldn’t all look the same. The disgust that we pour into these creatures is in each case the simulacrum of a long-held and unresolved loathing for our rulers. They don’t just organize the world in a way that harms people, they do so in a way that demands you grab your inner child by the hair and beat it into perpetual, miserable silence. Britain’s neurotic upper class have been shoving Matilda into the chokey for centuries.

And that’s why they killed Boaty McBoatface. They hate fun, really hate it, especially when that fun leaves them feeling embarrassed, and especially when that embarrassment is because the joke in question is perceived to be childish. All our stories scream to us the miserable truth that the British are taught to hate children, because our global reputation depends on us being seen as stern. Even the way people defended poor Boaty was dreary and ashamed: look at how the Guardian’s Stuart Heritage could only manage Voltaire’s defence, saying that you had the right to name your short-lived friend Boaty McBoatface but that it was “a bad idea, voted for by idiots”. The paranoid view of our learned self-hatred is that it’s simply not British to be an idiot.

But you are not an idiot, and Boaty is not the product of idiocy, and Britishness is more complicated than just being a terminally repressed authoritarian. We have these valves, eruptions of emotion that can’t not exist, and our little bouts of genuine feeling are the enemy of our quasi-medieval masters. It recurs in our storytelling all the time, in our popular culture. If the Tories are Dementors, then Boaty was a Patronus. If they are Ringwraiths, then Boaty was Samwise Gamgee. If Boaty McBoatface is the creation of idiots, then Britishness must mean being an idiot, because we have been telling this joke for a long, long time.

A culture copies itself as it morphs, refers to itself as it twists and distorts, endlessly in motion

Alright, so the joke itself isn’t inherently funny, but no joke inherently is. No arrangement of words means anything by itself. Something becomes meaningful because it is collectively considered to have a relation to something else, and humor is a subversion of collective meaning. That’s why Boaty McBoatface is now being honored in silly jokes elsewhere, with a serious BBC news anchor signing off with ‘Newsy McNewsnight’, and someone naming a racing steed ‘Horsey McHorseface’ – because a culture copies itself as it morphs, refers to itself as it twists and distorts, endlessly in motion, both the birthplace and the graveyard of its eternal mutations.

Look closely at this tedious defence of the government’s decision by some business-evangelizing wanker called Chris Hirst, who emphasized that the new research vessel will “cast off with the Union Jack flying, and with our global reputation for excellence to protect.” He doesn’t just try to evoke sensible behavior or nationalist sentiment, he justifies ignoring the vote on the grounds that “we expect and frequently need our leaders to make decisions – often, unpalatable ones – unapologetically and with confidence. We expect and need those decisions to be made unilaterally and without going to a committee. That’s what we pay them for. It’s what we elect them for.”

But of course the oppressive beauty of British democracy is that we’re not meant to choose our choices. The current Tory government got a parliamentary majority in last year’s election with 24% of eligible votes thanks to the stupid intricacies of our dated and undemocratic First Past the Post system. The path to becoming a parliamentary candidate in the first place is widely considered to be one of privilege, and the way a government organizes its priorities is widely considered to be determined by its biggest donors. The media treatment a political party receives will depend on which news magnates it sucks up to. That Chris thinks we actually chose any of the leaders in this multitude of processes tells us exactly where he stands in the struggle between imagination and despair.

We like to stick it to the uppity wanker who needs to be put in their place, it’s who we are

Remember how, during Miliband’s tenure, the Blairites tried to turn the Labour party into a permanent fortress for business interests by cutting out trade union funding? It was seen as a major victory, turning the Labour Party’s leadership election process into an open primary that would crush the Left of the party, until last year it backfired spectacularly when hundreds of thousands of ordinary people joined the party en masse to vote for Jeremy Corbyn.  They, too, were called hijackers, wastrels, people who didn’t really care or were just trying to disrupt the process and then bugger off, even though seven months later they remain some of the most vigorous and invigorated party members Labour has enjoyed in decades. And just like Boaty’s supporters, they are roundly despised by the same powers that schemed to manipulate their electoral appetite in the first place. The Blairites still genuinely believe they have no reason to be hated, much like Professor Umbridge.

There’s a cultural personhood somewhere in all this democratic humiliation of conniving bastards, a national character that is the better half of Britishness. We like to stick it to the uppity wanker who needs to be put in their place. It’s who we are.  Look at the way the British people decided in 2009 that they were tired of doing what Simon Cowell told them, and everyone en masse bought Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name Of just in time to make it the official Christmas number one single, bumping Cowell’s X Factor winner into second place and earning from him a very satisfying public tantrum.  The second time Britain tried this it was a more controversial: when Thatcher died, workers still seething at the communities she had smashed got together to buy Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead, which hit number two in the charts and so had to be played on the radio – so the BBC, being never any better than a half-arsed little container of fun, played a whole five seconds of the song and then cut it short, for more or less the same sacrificial purpose as Boaty.

Music has been at the heart of our rebellion of silliness. The youthful weirdness of British rock and roll was a reaction against a stuffy older generation that was just begging for a good hard kick in the bollocks. The repression those kids were trying to understand was brought to the surface when Pink Floyd sang that “hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”. David Bowie’s brazen playing with gender was received by a generation of teenagers who were ready to see something outrageously different to the sexless misery their parents preached. When Pete Townshend penned the bizarre tale behind The Who’s hugely successful ‘Tommy’ album, the deaf, dumb and blind kid he created was a lightning rod for a youth that were tired of being told to shut the fuck up about everything. ‘You didn’t see it’, they sang, half to a fictional child witnessing a murder, and half to a nation growing up in cities smashed to bits by Luftwaffe bombs but not allowed to talk about the resultant trauma. The later emergence of punk in this context shouldn’t need explaining.

The British Empire was a naval empire, so of course a maritime ritual would be the one they’d be most keen to protect

And that goes for our satire, too. Boaty McBoatface might have been a crap joke to start with, but he gained fame precisely because in Britain crap jokes annoy the serious. We forget it now, but Monty Python told a lot of crap jokes. What’s so funny about banging two halves of a coconut together to make the sound of horses’ hooves? What’s so funny about Biggus Dickus? You know what makes it funny, and you don’t need to explain it to anyone. Come and see the violence inherent in the system! Help, help, I’m being repressed!

Since it sat so squarely in this rich vein of having Britain’s ancient and noble institutions mocked, murder was their only solution. Murder Boaty McBoatface and tell everyone who ever loved him that they’re stupid and shouldn’t be allowed to make any decisions. Then they can simply slap another coat of paint on and push him out to sea with the deathly bright letters of its ghastly new name glinting in an annoying beam of mocking sunlight, without anyone making too much of a fuss. The British Empire was a naval empire, so of course a maritime ritual would be the one they’d be most keen to protect, because by their hideous calculation Britain is still a serious power and should continue to be ruled by serious people.

But there is the Britain too that stares out over the briny depths and knows that the Empire is dead, and is glad of that death. There’s that Britain which is finally relaxing, looking around at all its former glory going to shit and struggling to stifle a giggle. The Britain which has stopped stuffing its face with stolen wealth, desperate not to feel so empty, but which simply looks out on the grey waves that bore its evil abroad for so long, and fills its moment of peace with laughter for an innocent ship named Boaty McBoatface.



Image: Martin Mutch

The post Boaty McBoatface: A Eulogy appeared first on The Leveller.

Quick Curiosity update, sol 1320: "Lubango," the 10th drill site on Mars by The Planetary Society

Curiosity has drilled into Mars for the 10th time at a site named Lubango, on sol 1320 (April 23, 2016). Lubango is in a bright-toned halo around a crack in the Stimson sandstone unit on the western edge of the Naukluft Plateau.

April 25, 2016

My Favourite Film of 1949. by Feeling Listless

Film James Cooray Smith has been kind enough to write a guest post about my favourite film of 1949:

The Third Viewing

The first time I saw The Third Man was on television, and the very ending shocked me. When she walks past him on the path out of the graveyard. Because films didn’t end like that. Or at least the films seen by my pre-teen self on weekend afternoons didn’t.

The second time I saw The Third Man was at the cinema, and the very beginning shocked me. When a voice gives you an idea of what to expect. Because the BFI, bless them, showed both versions of the opening narration, both the one for the US market, voiced by Joseph Cotten in character as Holly Martins, and the odder, more omniscient one read by director Carol Reed, that played in the rest of the world.

I had never quite realised, despite attempts by Alex Cox in his Moviedrome introductions to educate me as to this point, that films, even big films, can and usually do have a textual history, like editions of a book do and that in film as in print, no text is purely correct, or indeed correct or pure.

The third time I saw The Third Man, I wrote an undergraduate essay about it. I don’t remember what I wrote. I remember I got what we’d all then self-flatteringly call a ‘High 2:1’. I no longer have a copy, and no one to ask for one, or about it’s content, because the tutor for whom I wrote it, the wonderful Michael Mason, has sadly gone on to the large SCR in the sky.

What might I have written about? The manufactured controversy over whether Welles’ directed any of it? (He didn’t.) Or the more interesting one over whether Graham Greene’s prose narrative of his script, written in preparation for writing the latter, but revised after the film was made, counts as a novelisation or not? (I think it does.) It might have been about whether it’s a British or American film. (It’s the former, by any sensible criteria, despite the AFI’s claims to contrary.) I may have dealt with its status as perhaps the first big feature film to be able to treat the Cold War as ongoing and contemporary.

I could have written about Welles’ dialogue on the wheel, and whether the inaccuracy of its claims (the Swiss did not invent the Cookoo clock, which is German and at the time of the Borgias had a vast and feared European army) are the unintended results of improvisation or a deliberate characterisation. Lime is, after all, a con man, and like his name, corrosive or preservative, depending on how you treat him.

Perhaps I bound them all together and wondered whether Greene or Welles or Carol Reed was the film’s “author”. Probably not. I’ve never had much time for auteur theory, but I honestly can’t remember.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? There are so many things to say about The Third Man, on a third or a thirtieth viewing. A magnificent, haunting work of art achieved, like all truly great cinema, through collaboration and accident, improvisation and alchemy rather than a single concrete ‘vision’. It’s also a film that casts a long shadow (yes, I know what I did there), with its radio adaptations and spin offs (with Orson Welles!) and television series sequel (without Orson Welles) and how it is endlessly parodied, borrowed from and copied.

Forty years after The Third Man was shot, its sound editor, John Glen, went back to that square, with its wheel still in situ, to shoot a peculiarly straight sort of homage to that scene, in his capacity as the director of The Living Daylights, the last James Bond film to be set in the Cold War, and perhaps the last big feature film to be able to treat that war as ongoing and contemporary.

I never got to know Vienna, the old Vienna of the Cold War, I didn’t go there until this century, to visit my sister who was working as a translator. It was the 22nd of March 2004 and I was walking back to her flat, I think I’d been sent out to buy food, and I was mostly looking down at my phone as I walked. It had been announced that Christopher Eccleston was to play the new Doctor Who, and I was mostly exchanging texts with friends about what an extraordinary piece of casting this was. I was going down some steps, and I slightly stumbled. I looked up to correct my course and there it was. The square. The one in which Welles disappears down a manhole during the film’s. The circular advertising hoarding was still there. It was absolutely unmistakeable, at least partially because I’d accidentally more or less created Reed’s camera angle on that moment with my stumbling entrance to the square. I gasped.

Alchemy, chemistry, accident. Perfect moment. Life imitating art.

April 24, 2016

Friends in High Places by The Leveller

The UK’s top financial regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), recently promised a crackdown on money laundering and financial crime in response to the Panama Papers.  The huge data leak revealed that several global banks, including HSBC, have moved money offshore with the help of secretive Panamanian firm Mossack Fonseca, prompting regulators in several countries to take action against tax avoidance and money laundering.

But the FCA now faces questions about its ability to maintain regulatory impartiality thanks to the presence on the board of Ruth Kelly, who worked at HSBC Global Asset Management between 2010 and 2015 as their Global Head of Client Strategy.  Data from the Panama Papers that has been made available to the public by the ICIJ demonstrates that holdings HSBC Global Asset Management publicly claim to have acquired over the years have been invested in offshore shell companies named in Mossack Fonseca’s files.

Kelly served as a cabinet minister under Tony Blair, whose government famously championed light-touch financial regulation

The history section of HSBC Global Asset Management’s website tells readers that in 2004 they acquired the Bank of Bermuda.  The ICIJ’s public database shows that the since-renamed HSBC Bank Bermuda either is or has been a shareholder in K.M. International Ltd, which it lists as an offshore entity.  The website also lists one of its historic acquisitions as Trinkaus & Burkhardt, now named HSBC Trinkaus & Burkhardt, which the banking giant bought in 1992.  The ICIJ database demonstrates that this subsidiary of HSBC is or has been the Master Client of three offshore entities: Sea Urchin Holdings Ltd, Walton Development Group Ltd, and HSBC Trinkaus & Burkhardt (International) S. A.

It is unclear from the ICIJ’s public data whether HSBC Bank Bermuda and HSBC Trinkaus & Burkhardt remain invested in these offshore entities today, or whether they were clients or shareholders of these companies while Ruth Kelly worked for HSBC Global Asset Management.  Furthermore there is no suggestion that Kelly was personally involved in the arrangement of offshore entities as part of her job at HSBC.

Kelly served as a cabinet minister in Tony Blair’s government, which prior to the financial crash in 2008 famously championed the light-touch regulation of a “thriving and healthy banking sector”.

An FCA press officer, asked to clarify the role of the board, said that “there is not generally a discussion at board level about operational issues like [individual investigations]”, and that decisions of supervisory action on financial institutions are an executive rather than board concern.  However, it was suggested that an executive board member may have recused themselves in a separate case in the past to avoid a potential conflict of interest, implying that a precedent could already exist for board members to declare a conflict and step away from a particular case.

Alex Cobham, the Director of Research at the Tax Justice Network, told the Leveller:

“If Ms Kelly were not to have made such a declaration, and this information was then made available to the chair, the implied breach of confidence would be such that it’s difficult to see how Ms Kelly could possibly continue in the role.”

There are already public concerns about financial and tax regulators’ ability to remain impartial due to recent scandals and regulatory failures.

The government tax collection agency HMRC’s initial position, that they would respond to the Panama Papers with an investigation, appears to have already crumbled as it is now considered highly unlikely that HMRC intends to prosecute any of the tax avoiders named in the leaked Mossack Fonseca documents. A tax investigation expert told the Financial Times that “prosecutions are costly and risky…HMRC’s first job is to collect money . . . it’s a very difficult decision for them to prosecute a taxpayer.”  It was recently revealed that the head of HMRC, Edward Troup, was a partner in a City firm that acted for the offshore entity that David Cameron had shares in. Troup once publicly argued in a newspaper column that “taxation is legalized extortion”.

Meanwhile the FCA has been dogged by allegations that it has already colluded directly with HSBC on a $1.4bn credit card fraud case.

The FCA may have been receiving direct instructions from HSBC

The regulator recently launched an investigation into a large scale credit card fraud case involving a now-defunct bank and its owner – HFC and John Lewis Financial Services, which is a subsidiary of HSBC.  HFC was acquired by HSBC in 2003. The case was brought before the Financial Services Authority (replaced by the FCA, founded in early 2013) by Nicholas Wilson, a lawyer whose firm represented HFC.  Wilson discovered what appeared to be the illegal overcharging of customers on their debts, and was fired for reporting his firm to the Law Society.  He has fought for over a decade to get the case investigated by financial regulators, despite the fact that the Office for Fair Trading had already ruled against the bank in 2010 based on Wilson’s evidence.

Wilson made a complaint against HSBC to the FSA in December 2012, which he told the Leveller was “completely ignored” (despite regular attempts to make contact) until a Freedom of Information request yielded a response from the FCA in April 2014 telling him that “more time was needed”.  At that time Wilson discovered evidence that the FCA may have been receiving direct instructions from HSBC.

As reported by journalist Ian Fraser, the FCA’s reply to Wilson’s FOI request was reproduced verbatim by HSBC when Joel Benjamin, a financial justice campaigner from New Zealand, wrote to the bank to ask why it had failed to respond to Wilson’s allegations by taking any action.  Fraser wrote: “the FCA’s response was identical to that of the bank, suggesting it had simply asked the bank how it should respond and had then cut and pasted the bank’s response into it own.”

“Certainly there’s a conflict of interest in the FCA employing Ruth Kelly, knowing that there was this outstanding fraud investigation.”

Finally, in January 2016, the FCA was forced to write Wilson an apology for their three years of evasiveness and failure, and this month held a meeting with Wilson and his lawyer in which he presented his evidence of the alleged fraud.  Wilson is optimistic that the case can finally receive the scrutiny it deserves. “I want to move forward,” he told the Leveller. “As far as I’m concerned the complaint’s been dealt with. They’ve apologized, they’ve paid me compensation. I want to be positive, and get them on side. I want to be friends with them.”

But Wilson had previously voiced concerns on his blog that some recent appointments to the board of the FCA may contain conflicts of interest with HSBC, including Ruth Kelly’s.  “I have to say that what [Kelly] did at HSBC had nothing to do with what I was doing, she would probably have known nothing about it,” Wilson said. “But certainly there’s a conflict of interest in the FCA employing her, knowing that there was this outstanding fraud investigation.”

Where HSBC has demonstrable financial and political connections across the British media, those outlets place the bank under almost no scrutiny concerning their fraud allegations

While Wilson believes that the FCA is now willing to genuinely tackle the issue, he remains wary of HSBC and has openly suspected on his blog that their modus operandi is to pull any strings they can. In February this year HSBC downgraded their provision for this fraud from $1bn to $0.4bn, and Wilson wrote at the time that he believed the FCA was “reassuring the bank that its liability will be limited, if they are found liable at all.”

HSBC is believed by some to both hold and utilize financial leverage over influential figures and institutions in order to keep several allegations of fraudulent activity worldwide under control. The bank came close to losing its license in the USA thanks to a $1.9bn fraud settlement in 2012 for laundering money on behalf of terrorists and drug cartels, with federal investigators accused of colluding with the bank.

And the Leveller reported in February that where HSBC has demonstrable financial and political connections all across the British media (including the BBC), those same outlets place the bank under either very mild or no scrutiny for major news stories concerning their fraud allegations.  Wilson has stated his belief that this process has helped keep media pressure off the FCA to investigate his own case, and in response to coverage of the Panama Papers he tweeted that the “BBC report capital outflows from China. They don’t report most money goes through HSBC Hong Kong, a British bank.”

Alex Cobham stressed that the public should take care not to condemn financial regulators as necessarily guilty simply for recruiting from the industry:

“Now there may be good reasons to employ potentially conflicted individuals in areas of regulation – for example, there may be reasons for optimism about the impact of the ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ approach of the UK government, in appointing to head HMRC a former tax adviser who has previously characterized tax as legalized extortion. Clearly however, there is at the very minimum a greater need for scrutiny in this case, and for appropriate action in response to specific conflicts.

In [regards to Ruth Kelly’s links to HSBC], the same general issues are present. Is there a value to having previously regulated actors join the regulator? Almost certainly. Does that, however, extend to currently regulated actors? Or to actors whose previously regulated activity is likely to come under scrutiny? These are much more difficult questions.”

If Ian Fraser’s observation is correct, that “it seems that HFC / HSBC and the Financial Conduct Authority have been caught red handed” on the question of direct collusion, then the FCA has sufficiently demonstrated form regarding its potential to be influenced by the bank, even without the presence of possibly conflicted board members.

When asked what he would recommend to the board of the FCA to satisfy the public’s growing interest in their transparency and impartiality, Cobham said: “I don’t see how any reasonable chair could respond to Ms Kelly’s declaration of a conflict in any way other than to thank her, and exclude her from all related processes.”



Image: Matt Buck

The post Friends in High Places appeared first on The Leveller.

April 23, 2016

Friend from the Future. by Feeling Listless

TV Bill? Well it is Shakespeare's birthday I suppose. Evening, and there we are, new companion Bill played by Pearl Mackie. Isn't she good? More in the Ace/Sam/Izzy/Lucie/Rose mould character wise so far, with the 90s revival costume and entire lack of fuck-giving in relation to the deadliest foe in the galaxy. We'll talk some more about this in a mo.  Here's the BBC's press release.

The approach to revealing companions has become increasingly sophisticated across the years with midnight press releases giving way to broken embargos on press releases to appearances on The One Show and now we have an actual mini-episode broadcast during Match of the Day of all things, or as has been indicated on the BBC website, "an exclusive scene from a future episode of Doctor Who" so it might not be the Christmas special.

Waiting for its emergence was of course torture for those of us whose interest in the beautiful game wouldn't stretch to even calling it the beautiful game despite Gary Lineker making us feel welcome with some Delgado cosplay. After some typical stoppage time we had to endure seemingly unending analysis of the kind that it's probably quite ironic of us to criticise given our behavior in the run up to the reveal.

Then it was time. Except, no it wasn't because at the moment when it seemed like discussion was ending and the fun was beginning, Gary segwayed into a clip of Graham Taylor discussing his time at Watford and his friendship with Elton John. Taylor probably hasn't been less welcome since he was manager of England. No, I can't do football jokes either.

Then, after narrating some maddeningly detailed fixture television scheduling information, Gary finally affected the ill at ease tone he previously adopted during London 2012 when forced to introduce those drama trailers, "And there's something else coming up on BBC One in the not too distant future, the Doctor has a new companion..."

And we're off and running because Doctor Who has to have lots of running.  And Daleks, not forgetting the Daleks.  Initially I thought these were shots repurposed from Into The Dalek or some other episode, but as the publicity shots indicate there was at least one on set for Capaldi to point over the head of.

The surprise was obviously spoiled by Radio Times writing about her yesterday after noticing a spike in the betting.  If there was a leak, judging by his Twitter, it wasn't the RT writer it went to, he was simply reporting.  Apparently Pearl just started following Billie and Freema on Twitter so that must have been an indication.  Let's see how long she continues tweeting.

It's a bit of a strange place to commenting on a companion based on two minutes of screen time and she's being played by an actor who's completely unknown outside of the theatre.  Most of the commentary is on the fact that she's a POC which is fine and worth noting, but let's not make that her defining characteristic shall we?

We simply don't know enough yet.  She's funny.  She has the capacity to turn on a dime and there's some obvious chemistry with Capaldi which is super important.  The timing is all there.  The script which was probably one of her audition pieces doesn't give much scope beyond screwball comedy, and although I didn't cheer at the end, when has Andy Pryor got this wrong?

She's another cockney, that's worth commenting on but in fairness we've not had someone from London since the RTD era (depending on what Clara's accent was doing that week) (or indeed which Clara).  Like I said the vibe isn't very 2016 at all from, like last, like, decade or the one before or the one before that.  Especially that t-shirt which looks like something Ace would wear.  See below.

Wild speculation: is she a historical companion?  It would be a bold move to have a character from the Wilderness years for example, the kind who might just as easily have travelled with the Eighth Doctor in the novels or comic strip.  What is Bill short for?  Is it short for anything?  It's unusual.  I've just googled "women called Bill" and now know a lot about presidential scandals.

Pearl's probably the least known new companion since the show came back.  Karen had some background on The Kevin Bishop show and Jenna had spent years on Emmerdale.  Pearl's IMDb indicates a bit part in an episode of Doctors from 2014 and a background artist on the John Hardwick's film Svengali from 2013.

Quick sidebar on Svengali's availability because we'll all be wanting to watch it now.  It's on Netflix.  Findable lists other sources where you can buy a stream though given it's mostly the same price as a month's subscription to Netflix, you might as well get Netflix and finally see Freema in Sense8 because she's brilliant and Sense8 is brilliant.  Or Svengali is £3.99 on dvd.

In all the excitement, Capaldi will probably be taken for granted but his performance in the above is extraordinary, his Doctor having apparently divested himself of his demons.  He's a bit crabby, but only with a Tenth facing down The Runaway Bride vibe, certainly the most Doctorish he's been yet.  If anything it's him which actually makes me excited to see the next series.  As it should be.

So nice to have an amuse-bouche in during this year of fasting and nice that there's nothing in here which is going to trouble us about the direction of the programme in 2017 at least.  After that?  Fuck knows.  But I've already said my peace about that.  Did Chibbers had any say in this selection?  Will she continue on into his era?

Two other things.  Two coincidences:

That t-shirt.  It looked familiar.  I tweeted and sure enough James pointed me towards this tweet:

When was this shot? Given that it's a proper piece of drama with grading, special effects sequences and editing, it wasn't going to be in the last couple of days, not least because it would have been signed off my BBC management. Graham Kibble-White was on the case:
Then this from Ed Russell:
Somehow Doctor Who managed to pay homage to someone they didn't know we'd be losing before he was gone.

Next.  Rachel Stott is the artist on Titan's Twelfth Doctor comic:
Oh my.  There we have it, anyway, a Doctor Who companion announced on Shakespeare's birthday.  What a day.

Updated 24/04/2016 Here's an interview with Pearl.

From the factory to you: Packaging the Fairphone 2 by Fairphone blog

From establishing a spare parts supply chain to developing special software features, in the past few months, we’ve been sharing lots of stories about creating the Fairphone 2 and expanding our impact with our latest phone.

One topic we haven’t touched on yet is packaging the phone – and, as you may suspect, the process is much more than just sticking a product in a box. Shipping costs, packaging materials, carbon emissions and customer experience are just a few of the elements we needed to take into account.

Getting phones and covers from Suzhou to Eindhoven

The first decision we had to make was when and where the finished phones would be packaged. Electronics companies often choose to have their final assembly factory handle the individual packaging of the completed products. However, after considering the risks and benefits, we decided that it made more sense to package the individual phones at Rhenus, our distribution center in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.

For us, this provided a number of advantages, starting with speed! At the factory in Suzhou, China, the phone can have its own production timeline processes and can be sent as soon as they are finished. And because the back covers follow a different production process, they can also be sent separately whenever they are done.

Packaging together
Fairphone 2 with PaperFoam® packaging, cardboard shipping box and postards

This approach also reduces the overall size, weight and related CO2 emissions of the packages that are shipped from China. Instead of shipping thousands of individual packages from China to their new owners, the finished Fairphone 2s are sent to Tilburg in bulk, carefully packaged in boxes which each contain 40 phones. By completing the packaging here, the boxes with individual phones only need to travel from the Netherlands to their final destinations throughout Europe.

I asked Luc Bedard, our logistics king, to make a quick calculation on this and the numbers speak for themselves. The shipping of, say, 40 phones, 40 back covers and 40 batteries (which are all shipped efficiently in bulk) fills 0,30 m3 for airfreight. Shipping 40 fully packed phones including the single shipping box (which is actually very small) takes around 0,62 m3 which means that our current approach reduces the volume by more than 50%!! On top of that, we only airfreight the bare minimum, meaning all the extra materials for packaging (like user guides) are printed in the Netherlands so they never have to fly long distances. Talking about CO2 reduction is a bit tricky without having the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) completed for Fairphone 2 yet, as emissions also heavily depend on weight. We’ll communicate more detailed information as soon as the Fairphone 2 LCA is ready.

Sustainable packaging with a positive customer experience

Once it was clear where we would do the final packaging, we needed to determine how it would look and function. Because the “opening experience” provides an excellent opportunity to reiterate our values and make a connection with you, our community, we wanted the packaging to be as special as the new phone we created.

Packaging community
Fairphone community posting their unboxing experience on social media

For the Fairphone 1, the packaging consisted of one cardboard box for the phone, within a second cardboard shipping box. We weren’t satisfied with this solution for a number of reasons, and one of our key takeaways for the Fairphone 2 was to find a way to integrate the shipping box into the overall phone packaging. In addition, we wanted to improve the unboxing experience and use materials that were more sustainable than regular cardboard.

To guide us through the engineering process, we partnered with the packaging experts at Paxpring. Together, we started by examining the requirements and constraints mentioned above. It was also very important to us that the phone was shipped without the back cover attached. Keeping the cover detached saves valuable time during the packaging process, while at the same time giving owners a more immediate connection to their phone and how it’s made.

The selection of materials helped shape our packaging design. Because the phone packaging would be inserted into a sturdy shipping box, we had more room to play with “softer” options that provided less mechanical resistance than cardboard. After considering a variety of alternatives, we decided to use PaperFoam®. Made in the Netherlands from starch, natural fibers and water, PaperFoam® is very lightweight, as well as recyclable, compostable and biodegradable. In addition, it was easy to customize the shape of the packaging, as it is created using an energy-efficient, low-pressure injection molding technique. Plus we also thought it looked really cool!

Watch how the Fairphone 2 packaging dissolves when you leave it in water. We had to speed up the process.

With the materials sorted out, our creative director Erik Nap and graphic designer Beth Russell worked closely with the teams at Paxpring and PaperFoam® to create the final shape, texture and design of the Fairphone 2 packaging, as well as a few extra elements that appear inside, like the user guide and fun Fairphone postcards which we used for a limited time.

Pairing each phone with the right color cover and putting it in this specially-designed box is the final step in the packaging process. Once everything is inside, the packaging is sealed with a strip tear-resistant Stone Paper with an inviting message to its owner: Open it, it’s yours.

Stone Paper is also an interesting material we have been playing with for a while. It is a silky, paper-like material made of calcium carbonate and a mix of non-toxic resin. The production doesn’t require any water or bleach, and it can be recycled endlessly (normal paper degrades with each recycling cycle). Stone Paper is a Cradle to Cradle (Silver) certified product. We see that it has a huge potential to reduce emissions for printed materials, but there is still low awareness on how it should be recycled (not in the paper bin). We plan to expand our use of this material when we have more space to talk about its benefits and can better educate people on proper recycling.

Packaging design and process will continue to evolve

Just like with everything else we do, the packaging design and process we’re currently using is just one step in our journey – there’s still plenty more to do and improve. Some users got mechanically damaged packages at the very beginning of our deliveries as a result of an issue related to humidity. Luckily, working with experienced partners like Paxpring allowed us to solve the issue quickly by modifying the design and storage conditions.

Furthermore, as we start to experiment with new back cover designs for the Fairphone 2 that have additional functionality, we will also need to adjust the packaging to fit these new covers.

In addition, we’re working to improve our spare parts packaging. We’ve come a long way from shipping the first spare parts to customers in ridiculously over-sized boxes, but we’re still working to optimize the packaging for what are often very tiny, but highly sensitive components.

That’s all for now folks. I’m happy to answer your questions on packaging in the chat below.

NASA Space Apps Challenge: Women hacking space image data by The Planetary Society

Today I'm participating in a program called the International @SpaceApps Women in Data Bootcamp. I'm presenting a brief talk highlighting the way that my personal discovery of NASA's image data archives shaped my path into public communication about science, and briefly showcasing three other women who do amazing work with public image data.

Planetary Society solar sails paved way for Alpha Centauri starshot by The Planetary Society

A new initiative to send a fleet of tiny spacecraft to Alpha Centauri is connected to The Planetary Society through its founders and efforts to advance solar sailing technology.

On Europe by Simon Wardley

In the near future, I have to vote on whether I wish the UK to remain within the European Union.

I love Europe but then I'm biased because I’m European. I’m British and always will be. But this is not a question of identity but of Union. It’s also the first time, being 48 years old, that I’ve ever been asked the question. For most of my life, I’ve been within the European Union, I’ve voted for MEPs but I’ve never chosen whether I wanted to be.

I’ve heard plenty of arguments from both sides - the leaves and the remains - and the question has vexed me. I’ve been told about immigration threats but immigration isn’t a threat, it’s a benefit. I know the lazy use it as an excuse to hide mismanagement of housing, social and service policies but that’s all it is  - something to blame for other failings. I live a land with low population densities in the countryside, a growing economy and plenty of room if people choose to make that happen.

I’ve heard the arguments of cost but whilst we’re talking of billions in payment, we have billions in rebates. There are many benefits from the Union - the freedom of movement, co-operation on science to workers' rights. We’re stronger as a larger union and there’s no solid reason to believe that any “savings” won’t be flittered away on tax breaks.

I’ve heard the arguments on security, we may tighten our borders but we also co-operate with others. I can’t see that co-operation changing much either way. I can’t see a convincing case we’d be safer.

I’ve heard the arguments on trade both with our European partners and potential future hypotheticals. I can’t see we’d actually stop trade with Europe if we left, the UK is an important destination but we also lack trade negotiators and what guarantee do we have that such future trade arrangements might happen? I would suspect there’d be some fall-out especially if the threats of consequences - also known as vengeance politics - happened.

I know that EU is subject to extensive lobbying by corporate interests, we’ve seen this first hand with the decision by the EC to suddenly declare open standards as FRAND. It’s a minor  and trivial point for most but one which could have profound impacts on open source software.  It’s also one we fought against lobbyists in the UK only to find it snuck in via the “European Union route.” 

But then, how many times has our own Government introduced legislation via "Europe" and then declared back home that they are forced to take this legislation because "Europe" says so.  Whilst, the UK has a good record on transparency it is not uniform and it is lazy to think that backroom deals and hushed secrets on international trade agreements (TTIP) are a Union problem and somehow distant from us.

I know Obama has urged us to stay but then that surely is in the self interest of the US, its Gov, its multinationals and its military. I was of course dismayed by the ridiculous, trifling and offensive arguments by Boris, rambling on about Churchill’s statue and Kenyan heritage. But then offensive is not an uncommon word when listening to some of the views of those who want to exit and the nationalist propaganda they peddle. 

I know I’m being bombarded by fear and uncertainty. If we leave Europe then millions of jobs will be lost, we’ll lose international status, become a rogue state of little Englanders and bigots. That’s not the country I know but then I understand that one way to silence people is by “association” to undesirable characteristics and one way to coerce is through fear and uncertainty. I saw the same games played in Scotland.  We will probably lose some jobs, maybe some trade, maybe some status - I’m sure there will be downsides to leaving. But I’m weary of the old tales of doom and gloom - “if you stop non doms then your entire economy will collapse” or “If you introduce this legislation then all the banks will move to Hong Kong”

There’s is however, one thing I never weary of. Democracy

It is an ideal which though never truly reached, we should always strive for. We, the people, lend our members of parliament the power to make decisions over us. We do this through elections. It’s a power they have to give back and which we grant to new MPs. We are not constrained by policies and choices of the past, we have parliamentary sovereignty.  These powers, as Tony Benn once said, must be returned undiminished.

But this is the first time I am voting on the European Union. We have a body known as the European Commission that is not elected, that we (the people) do not grant authority and power to but instead it is appointed and has taken power signed in treaty after treaty. It governs many policies from agriculture to trade. It makes trade deals. It has close associations to industry to corporations and we have no recourse. We cannot vote it out.

Except this one time.

I will not willingly surrender power to unelected undemocratic institutions. If all the bodies of the EU, if the EC was elected then maybe things would be different but they’re not. As much as I want to see a strong Europe, I have been given a chance to change something that has ruled over me without permission and has taken power with no apparent intention to give it back.

So, I am faced with a choice. 

I could decide to continue to hand over power to bodies that include unelected undemocratic institutions in return for keeping the status quo, maybe a bit of wishful thinking that we can change it but lets be honest it would really be about that bit of extra security and keeping the economy ticking along. Who wants to upset the apple cart? But then I’m not the only one effected because this was done to me. My parents generation handed my power away cheaply to unelected officials such as the EC who now govern many aspects of my life.  

To vote to remain, I would be doing the same to my son that was done to me. What would I say when he was older - I took away your power and gave it, without your permission, without thought for your future to unelected bureaucrats for a bit of security, safety and better job prospects?

I would rather die. 

Democracy is not something to be given away, to be sold, it is something incredibly precious that we keep for future generations and it is worth fighting for. I don’t care what the impacts are, I don’t care if we all end up poor but I’m sure some of you might. For me, the only way forward with democracy is more democracy not less.

There are many reasons, many attractions and many comforts that urge me to vote to remain in the European Union. There are vile people voting against it for the most atrocious, bigoted and nationalistic reasons.

There is only one reasonable reason to vote against remaining in the European Union and that reason is democracy. However, that reason trumps everything else. So will I cower under fear and uncertainty, be concerned about what people might think through association or even hide in one box rather than tick another. No. 

I am not voting against Europe, I am voting against the undemocratic institutions, the executive of the European Union - the European Commission - and all the technocrats and structures (e.g. the EuroGroup) that have been forced on others.

I have been given a chance to take power back from the unelected, to increase democracy rather than diminish it for both myself and future generations. I will seize that chance. 

I will vote to leave the European Union.

I will still be a European.

Added 23rd April 2016

I was asked the questions :-

1) Do you think the UK might leave the EU?

Very unlikely. Nothing is impossible but this is in the realms of fantasy land. If this is keeping you up at night then stop worrying. It'll almost certainly be a landslide for remain.

I have to vote with my conscience and I cannot vote for less democracy, I have to vote for more. However people have many reasons for which they will vote and being a democracy you just have to accept that what matters to you will often not matter to most people. 

In all likelihood, the overwhelming majority will vote based upon shorter term concerns such as jobs, mortgages, trade and the economy and not questions of democracy. It might be of paramount importance to some but that doesn't make it universal. It also doesn't mean that others are wrong. People have different concerns and democracy itself is probably not going to be high up on that list. I wish it was but that's just life, that's democracy for you, suck it up.

If you're hoping that the UK will be some beach-head of change, a beacon of revolution then I suspect you're in for a rum night. We're a nation of shopkeepers, we like the peaceful life and a piping hot cup of tea. We're not marauding vikings. We see a queue and we stand in it whether we need to or not. There is nothing wrong with this, it is perfectly reasonable to vote to keep the status quo if that is what is most important to you. Mine is a vote of principal, a vote of conscience on a very specific and important issue to me.

2) The EC and the EC President are democratic as they are elected by MEPs, it's no different from the civil service [or in some cases people will say 'cabinet'] in the UK!

The EC and the EC President are appointed. Yes, the European Parliament does get a veto (i.e. it has to approve) but neither the commissioners nor the EC president are elected representatives (by you and me). They are not even MEPs. The EC also initiates legislation in the EU.

In the UK, civil servants work for departments (e.g. health, justice, work & pensions) and those departments have a secretary of state (a minister responsible). The secretary of state is appointed by Government from MPs i.e. the convention is that each department has a head who is a named individual that has been elected by and is accountable to the people and then appointed by the Government of the day which itself has been elected by and is accountable to the people.

Those secretary or ministers of state can and do lose their position at elections. In the last election, we lost several ministers in charge of departments along with a few cabinet ministers e.g. Vince Cable and Danny Alexander. For reference the composition of the 95th cabinet can be found here. So if someone tells you that the EC is just as democratic as the UK Cabinet (which is often claimed) just ask them for a list of EC commissioners that have been removed from office by public elections. You'll be waiting for that list for a long time but [spoiler alert] the answer is ... none.

Also, for reference when you're told that MEPs vote on EC commissioners, people often forget to mention that it's on the entire team of commissioners and there's a lot of "compromise" that goes on.

It should also be noted that unlike the EC, civil servants don't initiate legislation only members (MPs) do. The EC and the Civil Service are not similar in terms of democratic accountability nor do they hold the same functions. Oh and no, I'm not particularly happy about quangos, chief execs and privatised departments either but then I'm not voting on those issues.

3) But the EC is accountable to MEPs!

Oh, what can I say? I know, I won't. I'll let someone else spell it out.

From New EU trade secrets law could jail whistleblowers

According to the transparency group Corporate Europe Observatory, a key group of MEPs from the centre-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) party were persuaded to vote in favour of the new directive believing they had a firm commitment from the European Commission that new laws would be brought explicitly protecting whistleblowers.

But that's not how things worked out: "By voting for the trade secrets directive, the S&D lose everything: after the debate, and contrary to their demands, the Commission said last night that the legal provisions on this issue in article 5 of the [trade secrets] directive are strong enough. In other words, no need for a directive to protect whistleblowers."

Yes, even your elected representative (i.e. elected by you, though often not directly but through proportional systems with a party choosing) such as MEPs get told "on your bike" in diplomatic terms by unelected (i.e. not elected by you but appointed) officials. There isn't even a convention for commissioners to be chosen from people you've elected (e.g. MEPs). Power to the people! Unfortunately for those poor MEPs, it's the unelected officials of the EC that get to initiate legislation, hence the MEPs can't do anything about it. Well, they can ask but from the above the EC has said "no" or more accurately "no need". Yes, your MEPs (voted by you) get told you don't need this by people not voted by you. Power to the People etc etc.

Just to be clear, there's a lot of MEPs trying to do a good job on our behalf. However, the use of procedure (e.g. "dirty political tricks") to the weak ability to initiate law (in general it is allowed to ask the EC to submit a proposal unless specific treaties give the parliament the right of self initiation) should cause concern.

4) Wouldn't getting rid of the House of Lords be more democratic?

Unfortunately, I have not been asked to vote in a referendum on the House of Lords. Of course, if I was asked then I would respond as I do now - more democracy, not less. I would be voting for an elected second chamber. 

Naturally, if this referendum was on the House of Lords instead of the EU then someone could argue "Well, the EC isn't elected by members of the public but instead appointed by your elected representatives and I don't see you trying to get rid of the EC, so why would you vote against the House of Lords" ... because I happen to believe in democracy, that power is given by the people and the measure of a democracy is the ease at which ordinary people can get rid of those in power. Whenever an opportunity is presented to give more power back to the people, I'm going to take it. I'm certainly not going to agree with an argument of the form "it's broken over there and so we should keep this broken thing over here".

5) Shouldn't you vote remain and help reform EU?

We will almost certainly vote to remain and I will at that point join DiEM25 and support the campaign for a more democratic Europe. However, I won't vote against my conscience because of some wishful hope of future change. I'm asked to vote on 'what is' and not 'what might be'. Whenever I'm given the opportunity, I will vote for more democracy over less democracy every single time. In my 48 years of life, this is the first opportunity I have had regarding the EU question. I won't squander it.

6) What is the right thing to vote for?

That is something that only you can decide for yourself. Regardless of how you vote, I would hope you take the time to find what is important to you and vote on that principle whether its democracy, freedom of movement, trade deals or even your own security. This is an incredibly important decision. There is no right or wrong or as Blair said "sensible choice", democracy isn't about that. You have the vote, it's your decision and you have been given this chance. Decide on what matters to you and vote.

7) Are you anti-Europe?

No, I'm pro Europe. However being pro-Europe, being a European does not mean I have to be pro a particular political institution such as the European Union and its related bodies (e.g. the EC). If I was voting on whether we should have a democratic federal Europe then I could easily find myself voting for it as long as it means more democracy, more accountability to the people, more transparency to the people. But I'm not voting on that.

8) Are you right wing?

No, I'm old labour.

9) If you're old Labour surely you want the European Union?

I'm fully aware that Conservative & UKIP MEPs tend to fail to block legislation far more often than Labour & Liberal MEPs e.g. 87% of the motions that Conservative MEPs were opposed to they failed to block, 95% for UKIP and about 36% for Liberal etc.

For me, I could go - "well, that's great because that's more inline with my political view than against it".  That might be my interest and I could make a pretty good argument that it's in the common interest across Europe (based upon my political views) and convince myself that it's ok because I'm getting more of what I want. But that's hardly democracy or an excuse for the deficit of democracy within the EC.  That's the really tough part of democracy - accepting that if you have it, you may actually get less of what you wanted.

I completely understand those who would argue that the EU has a tempering effect on the excesses of politics at home by allowing more socialist and work friendly policies. I also understand the hotbed of corporate lobbying that the EU / EC are. But as I said, this is a vote of principal and I'm for more democracy, not less.

10) What is your view on free movement?

My view is rather simple and as I'm frequently told "idealistic" along with other choice words. One planet, one people i.e. universal, worldwide free movement. But this isn't a referendum on free movement, it's a referendum on a political institution and for me that means issues of democracy are paramount.  Yes, I'm fully aware of the benefit that the EU and free trade has made to free movement and this is wonderful, I would hope it would be maintained. Yes, I can make an argument for voting to remain purely on the basis of fear that leaving EU would mean less free movement especially given some of the comments by the Leave campaign. However, that still won't overturn why I'm voting the way I am.

On the issues of immigration and asylum (which is where this normally leads), I view immigration as a benefit and I'm saddened by our response to the current crisis. I am perfectly aware that not everyone shares this view, please don't feel the need to explain to me why I'm wrong.

11) Would anything change your view on voting Leave?

A commitment to more democracy would always change my vote. For example, a binding commitment from the EU for :-
1) Full and immediate transparency in ALL decision making, treaty negotiations and documents of all EU institutions, councils & groups.
2) Compulsory register for lobbyists, public record for all meetings with any official.
3) All commissioners to be elected by the public of that nation state by 2018 in free and open elections.
4) A constitutional assembly by 2018 with the absolute commitment to a Sovereign European parliament elected by the public by 2020 and a European constitution built on citizens rights, enacted by citizens.

Something like that would certainly swing my vote. However, as it stands (and promises don't cut mustard) then the more democratic option is to leave.

12) Are you against the European Convention on Human Rights?

Absolutely not. I'm a huge supporter of both the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Council of Europe (CoE) which is a non law making body that is focused on democracy, rule of law and human rights and policies treaties in such areas.

We are not voting on the CoE or the ECHR. If we leave the EU that does not mean we leave the Council of Europe or the European Convention on Human Rights. The EU and the CoE are different institutions. There is a connection, as far as I remember, that a country has to be a signatory to the ECHR before joining the EU (I believe it is part of the Copenhagen criteria).

13) Isn't your objection really that EU uses a different form of democracy? 

An extremely good point and possibly to the nub of the matter. Yes, I'm strongly in favour of parliamentary sovereignty and yes, I realise this is not the ONLY way to do democracy. It may not be a coincidence that countries like UK, Netherlands, Finland and Sweden have all had issues with the EU / EC structure and that all these countries have a history of parliamentary sovereignty. There may certainly be a cultural element to this. It's an extremely good question and I do not have an answer but it certainly makes me think. The question of course now becomes, am I willing to accept a different form of democracy for the common interest? That I need to mull over.

April 22, 2016

Shakespeare at the BFI. by Feeling Listless

Theatre The BFI now has a YouTube playlist of thirty odd Shakespeare related videos including the above essay about Shakespeare adaptations across the years. Also included are various examples of silent Shakespeare (as featured in the recent BBC radio documentary), Q&As from recent screenings at the South Bank and documentary clips of Stratford Upon Avon.

Moonset over Mars by The Planetary Society

Enjoy this serene image of a moonset on another world, captured by Curiosity's Mastcam in April 2014 and processed here by Justin Cowart.

Engineering an Impact on the New Frontier by The Planetary Society

Bradley Williams, Systems Engineer for the camera suite on NASA's OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Return Mission, details the path that led him to his current position.

April 21, 2016

Speke Hall. by Feeling Listless

Speke Hall is a rare Tudor timber-framed manor house in a most unusual setting on the banks of the River Mersey. Restored and brought back to life in the 19th century, it is a unique and beautiful mixture of Tudor simplicity and Victorian Arts and Crafts' aesthetics.

Built by the devout Catholic Norris family - keen to impress visitors with the grandeur of their home and in particular the magnificent Great Hall - this beautiful building has witnessed more than 400 years of turbulent history. From the Tudor period when a secret priest hole was an essential feature, to years of neglect and decay in the 18th and 19th centuries (including a spell when it was used as a cow shed) and then being dragged into the Victorian era of improvement and technology, the Hall has seen it all.

In the 21st century, Speke Hall and its surrounding estate now provide a real oasis from the hurly burly of modern life. As you come through the gates, relax, take a breath and enjoy all that this wonderful place has to offer. The Hall is surrounded by beautiful restored gardens and protected by a collar of woodland.
Heritage My accent is confusing. Despite having been born in Liverpool, I haven't ever really developed a very strong local accent, the scouse accent. More often than not is settles somewhere in generic Northern but not enough so when strangers often ask were I'm from, or are completely baffled to the point of making random guesses. A taxi driver asked if I was from Oxford the other night and didn't seem very convinced when I told him the truth.  There's no particular reason why.  About ten years ago, a linguistic expert from the University told me that it was because I didn't really see myself as being from Liverpool but the world, which is partially true, but after forty years of living, breathing and working in this city you'd think I would have picked up some inflections, especially since sixteen of those years were spent in Speke which has one of the strongest Liverpool accents of them all.

Attending Speke Hall in that case should be something of a homecoming, but the surrounding area has changed a lot in the meantime.  Over the intervening decades, the fields in which I used to play and on one occasion hosted the final 1FM roadshow at the Mersey front have been replaced with the Estuary Industrial Park, a conglomeration of massive warehouses, an area which resembles the industrial zone glimpsed in the opening sequences of the film Blade Runner.  Most are anonymous, although discount chain B&M seems to have built their own country within its borders.  Construction continues and as the 80A bus winds through its streets, its almost impossible to believe that one of the National Trusts Tudor properties could be found anywhere between this maze of grey boxes and the John Lennon Airport.  As the vehicle stopped outside one of these boxes, if couple of retirees hadn't asked the driver if this was the right place for Speke Hall, I might missed it completely.

It's this couple I walked to the Hall with, up to the roundabout as directed by the driver and left into the reassuringly named Speke Hall Road.  A little further and we were in the Hall's grounds and the contrast couldn't be greater, industrialisation giving way to a long pathway framed on either side by rows and rows of daffodils, the sounds of vehicles falling into the distance replaced by birdsong.  Yesterday must have been the hottest this year and for a few moments I simply looked to the sky with its single shade of light blue in awe.  No clouds.  Even in Sefton Park, you're constantly aware that you're on the edge of the city, and although Speke certainly isn't that, more like the outskirts, if it wasn't for the jumbo jets flying overhead, you could almost imagine that you've stepped through a magic portal into part of the Lake District or the Cotswolds.

No wonder my parents brought me to the grounds so often as a child.  At least once a month we'd visit the gardens of Speke Hall when the grounds were still free to visit.  I would have been very young so my memory isn't that strong, but there were picnics, many picnics, in Tupperware pots on gingham blankets.  Philadelphia cheese and tomato baps.  Barrs Cream Soda.  Only once did I ever visit the house, as part of a school trip although again the memories aren't strong enough for me to remember anything now, a marble table is familiar.  Much of everything which happened to me as a pre-teen has dislodged itself, which is probably why I tend to feel more like a child of the 80s even though I was born in 1974.  The evening in the late 90s when the school choir visited to sing for visitors at is much clearer, stood in the front of one of the cafes amid Christmas trees, candles and mince pies.

The house itself hasn't been able to retain its own memories well either due to its many changes of ownership.  Permission to build a mansion in this spot was originally granted to the Norris family as early as 1314, and through a series of, as the guild book alliterates, "additions, adaptations and accompanying losses" the house was constructed across ensuing decades until it largely reached its present form by the late 1500s.  The Norris's kept ownership until the 1730s when Mary Norris entered a contracted marriage with Lord Sidney Beauclerk, the grandson of the actor Nell Gwyn.  He did not live at Speke Hall much and which is when the house fell into dereliction and related papers were lost so everything known about the house before then is through local research and comparative study.  Ask the volunteers about many of the earliest features and they simply don't know or have to resort to conjecture.

That's when the most damage was done to the earlier state of the house with the grounds keepers using the ground floor of the house as a place to store livestock and it's the Watt family to whom the Hall was sold in 1795, although it remained empty until 1856, when Richard Watt V took possession and it him we have to thank for renovating the property and largely putting it in the state it is now.  As part of the renovation process he purchased a large amount of heavy oak furniture in a Tudor style which were designated as heirlooms which is why they remain in the house now.  On his death Speke Hall passed to Watt's daughter Adelaide who leased the house to Frederick Leyland, the shipping line owner and art collector, with J.A.M. Whistler and  D.G. Rossetti being notable visitors.  He made further adjustments to the shape of the house, knocking a few walls through, which must have been quite strange for Adelaide when she later decided to move back in after the lease expired in 1877.

She remained there until her death in 1921.  During the ensuing Trusteeship, the connected surrounding farmland became an aerodrome, with old buildings turned into hangars and the farmhouse becoming the terminal.  The Hall itself passed to the National Trust in 1943, but due to a lack of finances it was then leased to Liverpool City Council who opened it to the public.  The guide book says, that between 1976 and 1986 it fell under the Merseyside Corporation which will have been when I originally visited.  They fixed the roof and so forth.  When the Corporation closed, the National Trust began full time management and although it is a full Trust property (despite continued funding from National Museums Liverpool), there is a sense that they're still dealing with decision taken during the intervening custody including parts of the art collection which the volunteers indicated are now within the collections of the art galleries which should still be within the house.

Despite having visited before, my lack of memory meant I could treat is as a new destination which was unsettling and not helped by being greeted on entry by one of the volunteers from The Hardman House last week, who remembered me.  But "unsettling" is the best description of the place in general.  Walking around you're very aware that although the house has a Tudor shell, the interiors are very much a mix of Victorian tastes and a Victorian attempt to fill the house with furniture from the earlier period so nothing looks quite right.  In one section, the Great Hall, the oldest part of the house gives way to The Blue Dining Room, the newest addition filled with Louis XV style furniture which was likened by Leyland when he saw to "a French plum box".  Between that and the billiard room, you're forever on your toes and surprised by what you might see next.  But I think the Trust have been right to keep the house in the state it is, rather like an old book filled with marginal notes, unlinings and crossings out.

For years I wondered why Speke Hall wasn't included in the arts collections survey and now I know.  When Leyland was a tenant, the walls were apparently covered with great works, pre-Raphaelites and French Impressionists.  But as it stands what's there is unremarkable.  Art UK (the successor to the BBC's Your Paintings) has just twenty-three oils and they mainly copies, apart from some romanticised images of the the Hall itself.  The bedrooms have a few nice tapestries and they're especially proud of a Mortlake tapestry depicting Diogenes and Alexander from c.1700.  Mainly the houses is lauded for its unusual architectural features, notably corridors, which is very rare for a Tudor house and suggests if Speke Hall wasn't a Trust property it could quite easily work as a hotel with the reception in the Great Hall (although given that it's a Grade I listed building that's unlikely).

Something I have learnt on this occasion is that in some of these properties you really do need a guide book in order to make the most of the visit.  Reading back through the Speke Hall volume, there's plenty which I missed so that's something I'll definitely consider in the future depending on the price.  Having gained the massive discount inherent in just paying a fiver a month for membership, adding £4.95 to the cost of the visit seems counterproductive although obviously not if it makes the visit all the richer.  That's an internal discussion for another time.  None of which is to say I won't be returning to Speke Hall.  After visiting the house, I didn't have time for the gardens, including a maze, which are massive, so I thought, given that this is one my locals, it would be best to leave them for another afternoon.  Even if I don't have the accent, my homeland keeps drawing me back.

The unavoidable discussion by Charlie Stross

Right now, the British (and by British I mean London) press are currently obsessed with a single topic: the up-coming BRExit referendum on June 23rd, asking whether the UK should leave (or remain in) the EU.

(This topic is somewhat less visible in the Scottish media because we have a general election coming up on May 5th. Campaigning is currently frantic, with Labour and Conservatives scrabbling to come second, the Scottish Greens (not the same as the English Greens) looking to upset the Liberal Democrats in fourth place, and Pat Robertson presumably saying "I knew it". But I digress.)

I already blogged about the BRExit referendum back in early 2013, when it was still only an idiotic twinkling in David Cameron's eye, and I still maintain that it's basically just an internal Conservative Party power struggle—the stench of hypocrisy and opportunism hangs over the contenders. But I'm not going to bore you with arguments I already went over years ago. Instead, I'd like to kick open a discussion (noting the presence of lots of non-British readers on this blog: I'm intrigued to know how this very British lunacy looks from the outside) with two observations I didn't make the previous time round.

Firstly, the London-based press (who are overwhelmingly europhobic, mostly because they're owned by rich white billionaire tax exiles) are moaning about the Project Fear arguments deployed by the "stay" campaign. What they seem incapable of recognizing is that the fear, uncertainty, and doubt-based arguments directed against the BRExit campaign are identical to the arguments the pro-Brexit press were hurling at the Scottish Independence campaign during the Independence Referendum of 2015, because the proposed courses of action are equivalent. It appears that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander as well, and I'm coming dangerously close to overdosing on schadenfreude at the sight of conservative politicians who spent 2015 tub-thumping in the bully pulpit on the subject of how hard it would be for Scotland to maintain trade and travel and diplomatic relations with the rest of the world suddenly having to reverse themselves and defend their position against exactly the same arguments.

Bluntly: any argument that against Scottish Independence from the UK that merited consideration also works as an argument against British Exit from the EU.

Secondly, as with the Scottish Independence referendum, it's not about money. Most of the arguments being thrown around boil down to whether the British voter will be financially better or worse off in event of the BRExit vote passing. This is because most British voters are stupid, greedy, and think in the short-term (so, no different from anyone else) and this is therefore the lever that political campaigners like to pull.

But the UK and the EU are both about rather more than money. In the case of Scottish Independence, the argument was about the continued domination of a distinct Scottish national identity by a political agenda set from afar, by a caste located in the South-East of England. (For an American analogy: imagine if you lived in Massachussets or Washington but your political frame of reference was dictated from Mississippi or Alabama, without representation.)

And in the case of the EU ... the EU isn't really about mediating European arrest warrants or reciprocal rights of residence or setting standards for power consumption by vacuum cleaners. The EU is the current incarnation of an institution established in 1947 to ensure that never again would the nations of western Europe go to war with one another. And it has been staggeringly successful: no army has crossed the Rhine river in more than 70 years, and this is the longest period of peace on the Rhine since before the rise of the Roman Empire. This is the dog that doesn't bark, and therefore doesn't make the news. Some of you might point to NATO as being the instrument of peace, but I disagree: the existence of armies means that war is still possible, but it's the EU that has largely removed the motives for war.

I submit that breaking the institution that has given Europe the longest period of peace in recorded history would be a mistake—especially in pursuit of a goal as parochial as a Conservative Party leadership struggle. There are plenty of things wrong with the EU, viewed from the right or viewed from the left. But if your house has rising damp, you don't deal with the problem by burning it to the ground; you generally look for ways to repair it.

Where Are All The Superheroes? by The Leveller

A friend of mine used to say that when discussing art, you can find meaning where you want, and back up opinion where you see fit. It’s certainly not a view I share, but I can see the point he was making: there’s little room in the humanities and liberal arts for definitive answers. There are very few absolutes but there are trends, and the occasional consensus.

The way we lionize the natural sciences has made us look for absolutes when sometimes there isn’t one

What I do admit is the interpretation and social warping of concepts over time. Abstract concepts such as virtue, truth, morality, and evil are arguably matters of linguistic illusion rather than being absolutely definable, which make them slippery and hard to pin down.

As far as most people are concerned, math and science exist in near absolutes, or near certain inferences. Uncertainly is measured in the 0.01%s rather than what a concept means at any given time in our cognitive or linguistic economy, or how a brush stroke reveals political uncertainty, or whether a certain piece of music fairly reflects postmodernism. The way we lionize the natural sciences has made us more susceptible to looking for these absolutes in human affairs, for the security of a definite answer, when sometimes there isn’t one.

It’s fairly easy to see why someone would share my friend’s opinion on literature, at least. Once stories are consumed, they belong to the reader. With the infinite idiosyncrasies of a readership, each word, phrase, and paragraph will mean something different to each person. We map our own ideas, experiences, emotions, and beliefs onto what we read, and then we take from it what our desires tell us to. Films, paintings, dance, and music in a similar sense belong to the audience once they have left the artists hand. I recently got into the habit of tearing up over venerable acts of virtue: honor, truth, and determination in the face of oppression. My wife still enjoys telling everyone about my tears over ‘The Hundred Foot Journey’, which she points out, is simply a heart-warming tale about an Indian restaurant being set up opposite an established French restaurant, “but it’s about the acceptance of different cultures…” I sniffed, “…about understanding our ethnocentrism” – I think I was having a moment.

Do our shared interpretations of some of these concepts disguise issues from us?

Although the arts may well be open to some interpretation, and we may feel we emotionally make them our own, this doesn’t mean we aren’t heavily influenced by the message story tellers, artists and other creators set out to engender. In fact, what we take from stories, art and music can center on shared experiences, shared values. Along this vein, certain abstract concepts have been refined through cultural and social history to allow us some form of agreement on what they can come to mean. A society’s hegemonic values can agree, for example, on what evil is generally held to be. But does our shared interpretation of some of these concepts cloak issues from our attention, do they hide other more useful and progressive interpretations?

I’ll illustrate this with the superhero paradigm. Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past few years, underwater, with a terrible WiFi connection, it can’t have escaped your attention that superhero films are the big deal. Stories like this pervade western culture. Their affect makes us feel powerful as individuals, as if we can be agents of change. We should respect bravery and honor, and maybe the notion that sometimes it’s okay to resort to violence to solve our problems. (Maybe that’s why there are so many sequels?)

What seems less open to interpretation is that the main catalyst for heroism in this paradigm is antagonism: some untempered evil to overcome.  But aren’t evils something we see in the real world day to day?  Not Dr Doom, but Assad; not Venom, but Trump; not the trickster Loki, but Osborne. We still have evil in the world. In fact, let’s be honest, Marvel and DC villains might think some of these things were ‘a bit much’ – Lex Luthor might be fine smashing Metropolis to pieces, but it’s hard to see him systematically killing the disabled and telling their grieving families that he’s curing their laziness. And yet we don’t see vigilante justice on the scale you’d expect from a superhero in the face of such overwhelming antagonism.

I would expect a little more spandex for the level of abhorrent acts in the world, so I went looking

Plenty of people have the time to fight evil. A lack of a super powers doesn’t stop Batman, Iron Man, The Black Widow, and nor would it be reason enough to stop any other person. I imagine plenty of people would jump at the chance to take on the danger, and the ethical consideration of the law wouldn’t be a major deal breaker, and many more would like to see their own sense of justice realized, so it can’t be diffusion of responsibility.

If we’ve got unmitigated evil, where are our heroes and heroines to restore balance? I would expect a little more spandex for the level of abhorrent acts in the world! So, I went looking.

It didn’t take much to find a few ‘superheroes’, but of course many of their identities were secret, so it was hard to track them down. I can see the problems villainy faced with this simple defense mechanism. Unperturbed, I eventually found Dark Guardian, a martial arts instructor turned self-proclaimed superhero, who patrols various parts of NYC . Decked out in a red bullet proof vest and red leather trousers, he’s hard to miss.

Dark Guardian has also run free self-defense seminars when there were homophobic attacks going on in the local area

His real name is Chris Pollak, and he awaited my first question with what I imagine was staunch stoicism; although that could have just been my imagination. Dark Guardian tells that me his reasons for doing what he does stems from the inspirational heroes in films and comics: “The idea of someone who does [this] without pay and puts themselves on the line ‘just because’ is what I found inspiring”.

I liked the answer. After all we all can find inspiration in stories, and the ideal of giving time for people for free appeals to me in a world where a lot of things are only contemplated if there is financial incentive.  Aside from patrolling, breaking up fights and giving descriptions of violent pimps to the police, Dark Guardian has also run free self-defense seminars when there were homophobic attacks going on in the local area. Hard to argue with that one either.

Public support, being visible, matters to him. “I like people to see what I’m doing. It’s a chance to promote getting out and doing good. I’ll let people decide what they want about me. It really doesn’t matter, but I do try to hold myself to a high standard because it’s my passion and a reflection of who I am. I’ve been ridiculed and made fun of but honestly it meaningless. What matters is the work.”

So, why don’t more people do this? Why are there not more moonlit heroes? Why are there not thousands more like Dark Guardian?  What was interesting throughout our conversation was the idea of promoting good, yet the reasons Dark Guardian and others often give for deciding to become superheroes come from a wish to restore a personally intuited imbalance. Address an evil to fight and overcome, because “you grow up seeing what crime can do to a community and it has an effect on you.”

Our classic idea of evil is all too often viewed in the singular: attached to some individual or action that needs a quick fix to overcome

But most people who decide to take on the role of hero have turned to promote good through community deeds rather than tackle evil head on. Why? This question presupposes that the key necessity for these heroic creations is already available as people believe it is, and this is the mistake. It is not that we lack the tools to create classic superheroes – we have them in abundance – but what we don’t have is an acceptable antagonist to forge one, no supervillains that fit the bill. We have few real world instances of the genre’s classic idea of evil.

True evil doesn’t take the form of the lone villain waiting for a fistfight in the shadows, and equally doesn’t require people to fight it with onomatopoeic roundhouses. The Dark Guardian may solve some criminal issues, but the majority of his work is doing good, not fighting evil doers. It’s actually quite hard to find this classic concept of ‘evil’, and when criminal acts are confronted, they are superficial solutions at best, a drug to fight the itch; not the cure for the cause.

Our classic idea of evil is all too often viewed in the singular: attached to some individual or action that needs a quick fix to overcome, rather than being shown to be the wider systematic political, economic or societal injustices that hide behind these individual moments.  In the real world, evils are often clandestine, hidden or intangible, even accidental and, due to this, far more potent and far more deserving of this slippery abstract word.  Racism is so more more than the explicit singular newsworthy items of violence against individuals. That would ignore the seed of the issue which is the evil of systemic, often implicit bias.  Sexual exploitation is seen in the hero-villain paradigm as an individual criminal act, and not a wider issue of the automatically assumed power and entitlement of men. Homelessness is a rare discomfort to our halcyon hideaways, and not a vice of our wider economic system and attitudes surrounding personal value. The Panama Papers leak doesn’t reveal a handful of sneaky morally questionable acts, but an ingrained sense of entitlement and theft from those in positions of financial and political power on.

The more we reevaluate our idea of evil, and focus on the fundamental evils we have become used to, demotivated and disillusioned by, the more people can put on their own capes and tackle them with lasting potency. What I took away with me after talking to Dark Guardian was that I felt change wouldn’t need any more incentive than the human need for justice, only more elbow grease; and although our social and economic structures have given us a number of vices, they may have at least provided for us enough confidence in whatever agency we have to make some difference by both promoting good and tackling the insidious evils that we may, without knowing, be maintaining.



Image: Stick Kim

The post Where Are All The Superheroes? appeared first on The Leveller.

Right Goals, Wrong Tools: EU Antitrust Case Against Google by Albert Wenger

The European Union launched an Antitrust Complaint against Google over Android. It is a shame that we keep coming back to using antitrust legislation to try to deal with issues of concentration and market power in information industries.  We need alternative regulatory tools that are more in line with how computation works and why the properties of information tend to lead to concentration.

We want networks and network effects to exist because of their positive externalities. Imagine as a counter factual a world of highly fragmented operating systems for smartphones – it would make it extremely difficult for app developers to write apps that work well for everyone (hard enough across iOS and Android).

At the same time we want to prevent networks and network effect companies from becoming so powerful and extractive that they stifle innovation. For instance, I have written before about how the app store duopoly has prevented certain kinds of innovation.

Antitrust is a sledge hammer that was invented at a time of large industrial companies that had no network effects. Using it now is a bad idea and doubly so because it goes only after Google which has by far the more open mobile operating system when compared to Apple.

So what could we do instead? We have to shift the power in computation towards the edge and prevent enclosures of computation. The Web did this very effectively with an open standard and ad blocking on the web is an example of the power this has given to the edge.

We need something similar for mobile. In the absence of a standard that is embraced (it could still emerge and could even be the web itself!) one push would be what I call the right to be represented by a bot (see the second half of my TEDxNY talk) and could also be thought of as the right to an API key.

Interestingly that approach doesn’t just mitigate the negative effects of networks on innovation but also gets fundamentally at the co-ownership of data between users and providers of services.

Atmospheric Waves Awareness: An Explainer by The Planetary Society

There are two types of atmospheric waves that are critically important on Earth and other planets: gravity waves and planetary waves.

Synthesizing DSCOVR-like Images Using Atmospheric and Geophysical Data by The Planetary Society

Why does our planet look the way it does from space? How does light interacting with land, clouds, water, snow, ice, gases, and various aerosols all come together? One way to learn the answer is to try and synthesize DSCOVR's view from various "building blocks" of geophysical and atmospheric data.

April 20, 2016

Card Catalogues. by Feeling Listless

Books The Folger Shakespeare Library has still retained its card catalogue. In an age when "everything is online", more often than not it isn't because in some cases the process of transforming some texts isn't cost effective or there's a balance to be struck in relation to whether it's even worth the attempt due to how much it would actually be used.

Here they mount a defence for why it's still important in 2016:

"... card catalogs provide an opportunity for serendipitous discovery that is difficult to duplicate in an online catalog. The physical act of searching through the cards requires a somewhat different thought process than searching an electronic catalog. Flipping through the cards on your way to what you think you’re looking for is a great way to find items you didn’t know you were looking for. Because the cards can be physically arranged in different ways, it is possible for us to provide many different access points into our collection. For example, we have both chronological files and publication location files."
Yes it's true. Keyword searches in OPACs are fine as is visiting a shelf number and browsing the materials clustered around the book you're looking for, but there's serendipity to card catalogues, to randomly visiting the drawers and seeing what you'll find.

Long Mynd Over The Back by Goatchurch

If you look closely you can see the grin behind the helmet.
There was nothing especially epic about this XC flight from the Long Mynd to Clee Hill, except a masterful get-away from the slope in nil-wind with just one thermal during which I miraculously stayed on top of all the paragliders. Also there was a very low-save.

I took off at about 1:30 during the period when the wind was less than 5mph and sometimes coming from the SW. This trace is off the Long Mynd Gliding Club weather station:

No one could explain why there was so little breeze to make reliable ridge soaring possible. Meanwhile, there were champion pilots flying 100s of miles on seven hour flights on that day, which one must try not to feel bad about, when I “only” managed to stay up for an hour and a half.

One thing I did learn for sure is that I utterly depend on the thermal assist of the XCSoar running on my android phone. (That Kobo kit you see in the video is going in the bin.) The magic went away when the phone ran out of batteries; my thermal tracking abilities went out the window from that moment on. So this flight (and hopefully many more, when I sort out an extra power supply brick for the phone) is dedicated to Lines 145 to 202 of XCSoar/src/Renderer/TrailRenderer.cpp which was able to direct my search for lift whenever I lost it. This is the section of the manual describing the critical feature:


A couple more regrets. I didn’t make cloudbase by at least 300m, according to the dew point measurements. And the barometric reader, based on bit-bashing and interrupts, is completely shot to pieces by the overload on the microcontroller from acquiring so many other inputs of data. Only about 1% of the readings are getting through. I’ve got to come up with some other answer, and I don’t have a lot of time in a week when we’ve got some help doing something about the state of the kitchen floor.

A new angle on Mars for Mars Odyssey by The Planetary Society

Mars Odyssey has been in space for 15 years. It flies in a special "sun-synchronous" orbit, crossing the equator at roughly the same local time every day. Over time, the Odyssey mission has changed what that local time of day is, and I just realized something cool about how those changes show up in the geometry of its images.

April 19, 2016

Share tha' by Feeling Listless

TV Find above the trailer for the The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses with Camberwell Bandersnatch's Richard III foregrounded. Publicity for the BBC Shakespeare Festival is gaining ground with the BBC Shakespeare at the epicentre of publicity although I can't help feeling that in the olden days there would have been a blog and/or RSS feed keeping abreast of everything Shakespearean appearing on the BBC website.  No, no, don't look at me. I'm busy.

This week's episodes of daytime soap Doctors has a Shakespeare theme, with each episode inspired by a sonnet and with a scene shot at the RSC.  I'll give you that at least.

Anyway, here's a trailer for the rest of the televisual offer for the festival:

Though I expect they'll repeat a fair amount of the programming from the last BBC Shakespeare Festival four years ago.  And Shakespeare Retold.  And The Bard on the Box.  These things are coming around with increasing rapidity. Perhaps in two years we'll have a redo of Spread of the Eagle?

A #RefugeesWelcome Haggadah Supplement by The Leveller

Every year that I have lived outside of the American Jewish community of my birth, I have made it a custom to celebrate Passover with my new friends and community wherever I am, regardless of the presence of other Jews. I have had with my non-Jewish friends, Eastern Orthodox or Catholic or Anglican or Muslim or Atheist, from Britain and Germany and the Balkans and Kurdistan, beautiful interactions in the retelling of the story of Exodus and excellent engagement over the parallels between our cultures. This year, my family will be celebrating Passover with the refugees in our small town in Germany, and this is the most sensitive Passover of my life.

These are my friends, but that doesn’t mean that we come to this from an equal standpoint. There are always power dynamics involved when you know the songs and the prayers and your guests don’t even read the language in which they’re written. It is too easy to embrace one’s own culture as better, and to accidentally present it that way to guests in your land or your home, as I have seen many well-meaning people do in the attempted integration of refugees. I do not seek to force my customs upon my new neighbors and friends, nor to show them as somehow superior. I merely seek to welcome them into the inner sanctum of my spiritual life, to say not simply #RefugeesWelcome but “you personally are welcome with us, as both a human being and as a representative of the struggle that is being a refugee.” In so doing, this Passover service is no longer a custom merely for and by Jews, but becomes, as many Jews have always made it, a welcoming window for non-Jews to understand us.

So it is that, while normally any Haggadah from a progressive tradition will do, I have this year made my own variations and adaptations to that text to include the struggle of modern refugees in our holiest of days. To do so, I have stolen directly or taken cues from The Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah for Pesach by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat , plus the #BlackLivesMatter Haggadah Supplement of 2014, a masterful work by Jews For Racial and Economic Justice, as well as the resources of Jews United for Justice, on whose board I very shortly served in Maryland as we transitioned over from American Jewish Congress to JUFJ, and the resources of Jewish Voice For Peace and Rabbi Brant Rosen. In addition, my own experiences in the field of civilian refugee assistance and integration within Germany and in teaching “Jewish Concepts of Peaceful Coexistence” to non-Jews in Berlin have informed the rest.

Download the #RefugeesWelcome Haggadah Supplement here now.

I’m no rabbi, just a member of an ethnic and cultural and religious community known for an embrace of social justice and diversity. I teach on Judaism and I serve on Jewish boards and I live my own Judaism and would not dare tell anyone else how to Jew. This is, of course, merely one interpretation, and all are welcome to share it, alter it, improve upon it in their own ways, just as I have done with the works of my forebears.

Use it well. Chag Sameach!                                                              ~Zachary Gallant

The post A #RefugeesWelcome Haggadah Supplement appeared first on The Leveller.

Direct Servo Motor PWM and encoders by Goatchurch

This has taken a lot of effort fighting through the device trees on the Beaglebone to make it access the PWM and Quadrature encoder services at the same time, which is the minimum required to effect a stimulus response observation from a DC servo motor powered by an H-bridge.

What happens when you apply a fixed voltage to the DC motor for an eighth of a second, then reverse the voltage for another eighth of a second, and then set the voltage to zero (and try it for many different voltages and directions):

Here’s the graph of motor positions (in Y) over time (in X) for 20 different trials:


The dots correspond to the times when the voltage was turned on, reversed, and turned off. The exact timing of these transitions is not consistent because I was executing this in a dumb bit of C-code on the Beaglebone that was subject to operating system delays. Luckily I’ve logged the realtime of each sample in the file, so it shouldn’t matter to the data.

Here’s at code which changed the voltages at particular points in the logging loop:

int usec = start_time.tv_usec;
*cmpa_reg = 500;  // out of 1000 for a 50% duty cycle that delivers zero volts
int cmpaval = 650;  // 150/500*(30V bench power supply) = 9Volts
for (int j = 0; j < 600; j++) {
    if (j == 10)
        *cmpa_reg = cmpaval; 
    if (j == 200)  
        *cmpa_reg = 1000-cmpaval; // reverse voltage
    if (j == 400)
        *cmpa_reg = 500; // set back to zero
    gettimeofday(&start_time, 0); 
    fprintf(fout, "%d %d\n", (start_time.tv_usec - usec), (*qposcnt_reg - cntstart0)); 

We had a lot of problem getting the Beaglebone to receive quadrature encoding and generate PWM code at the same time. The code for doing it using the PWMSS (pulse width modulation subsystem) is here.

Briefly, you need to turn on the eqep quadrature decoder on pins P8.33 and P8.35 like this:

echo bone_eqep1 > /sys/devices/bone_capemgr*/slots

and set up the PWM generation on pin P9.14 like this:

echo am33xx_pwm > /sys/devices/bone_capemgr.9/slots
echo bone_pwm_P9_14 > /sys/devices/bone_capemgr.9/slots
cd /sys/devices/ocp.3/pwm_test_P9_14.12
echo 1 > run
echo 10000 > period
echo 5000 > duty

And then the address mapping (which can be seen in the manual) was like this:

long PWMSS_offset = 0x48302000; 
long PWMSS_size = 0x260; 
long CMPA = 0x200 + 0x12; 
long QPOSCNT = 0x180 + 0x00; 
long QCAPCTL = 0x180 + 0x2C; 

int fd = open("/dev/mem", O_RDWR);
void* pwmssaddr = mmap(0, PWMSS_size, PROT_READ | PROT_WRITE, MAP_SHARED, fd, PWMSS_offset);
unsigned short *cmpa_reg = pwmssaddr + CMPA;
unsigned int* qcapctl_reg = pwmssaddr + QCAPCTL; 
int* qposcnt_reg = pwmssaddr + QPOSCNT; 

I wanted to write it in Python instead of C, but its mmap() function can’t handle writing just a short 2-byte value to the CMPA register rather than a 4-byte word, and when you do the latter, the number just doesn’t get saved. (This took forever to debug.)

Let’s see if we can get any consistent kinematics from this data

The data was loaded using this loop:

fname = "/home/goatchurch/geom3d/pru-servo-driving/motorcurves.txt"
ls = open(fname).readlines()
lss = [ ]
for l in ls:
    if not l.strip():
    elif not lss[-1]:
        usec, qpos = list(map(int, l.split()))[1:]
        lss[-1].append((usec + (1000000 if usec<0 else 0), qpos))
                               # ^^ handle the usec counter clocking past 0

It’s going to be easier to work with velocities rather than positions.

Here’s the graph of velocities from when the voltage is applied to the time just before the voltage is reversed:
Everything seems to get up to a speed that’s proportional to the voltage, but it looks like there’s a bit of a hump near the beginning.

Let’s look at the easier side, where the voltage is set back to 0 (actually it’s 50% PWM at 100kHz):
The reason this should be easier is that the ending conditions are all the same, but we start with different velocities.

The code for generating one of those velocity profiles (and trimming out the tail) from the quadrature positions is as follows:

    tvseq = [ ]
    for i in range(405, 595):
        # convert time from microseconds to seconds, and 
        # quadrature position (100per rev) to revolutions per second 
        v = 1e-6*(lsss[i+dd][1] - lsss[i-dd][1])/(lsss[i+dd][0] - lsss[i-dd][0])
        tvseq.append((lsss[i][0]*1e-6, v/400))
    while tvseq and abs(tvseq[-1][1])<0.0005:

I’d like to fit an exponential decay curve to it, which is the solution to the differential equation dv/dt = -lam*v that says the braking force is proportional to the velocity:

def fun(X, tvseq):
    fac, lam = X
    return sum((v-fac*math.exp(-lam*(t-tvseq[0][0])))**2  for t, v in tvseq)

The curve fitting is done as using the minimize function that finds the values of fac and lam that minimize the error function fun():

# cyan for original data
sendactivity(contours=[[(t*10, v)  for t, v in tvseq]], materialnumber=1)

# red for curve fit data
res = scipy.optimize.minimize(fun=fun, x0=(tvseq[0][1],1), args=(tvseq,))
fac, lam = res["x"]
sendactivity(contours=[[(t*10, fac*math.exp(-lam*(t-tvseq[0][0])))  for t, v in tvseq]], materialnumber=2)


The numbers for the exponentials are pretty consistently around 74 once you get past the lower voltage lower starting speeds at the beginning of the list.

1, 1, 87, 89, 75, 77, 72, 73, 73, 72, 71, 72, 72, 82, 73, 74, 73, 74, 76, 73, 74, 74, 74, 74, 75, 75, 75, 75, 75, 75

This means that when the voltage is set to 50% PWM (or zero net) the motor slows down at the rate of 74revs per second per second times its revs per second at the time. (There has got to be a better way to express this.)

If I was to run this experiment with metal disks screwed onto the motor spindle to give it different angular momentums, I might be able to derive the force and motor momentum variables.

Looking again at the start end, it’s clear that the exponential curves don’t exactly fit.


Overall the exponents at the different voltages smaller to larger are as follows:

0, 1, 65, 58, 68, 67, 69, 72, 73, 73, 72, 75, 71, 74, 71, 74, 69, 73, 68, 67, 63, 64, 58, 58, 51, 53, 45, 45, 38, 39

So it’s sort of around the 74 mark for some of the time, going bad where the curves fit the worst.

If we divide the trajectory into two parts, as in the picture:

We get the following exponents:

First: 0, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 78, 79, 74, 78, 76, 74, 74, 74, 71, 76, 71, 73, 77, 77, 81, 79, 85, 87, 92, 88, 99, 98
Second: 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 31, 33, 32, 26, 29, 26

I think there’s some kind of run-away situation here where the initial hit of energy gives the motor a kick so that it spins ahead mechanically before the rest of the system, magnetism, coils, etc, have a chance to catch up. That first part of the trajectory is only 0.04seconds long.

Finally, plotting the limiting speed for each voltage gives this reasonably linear graph (subject to the bad values from the dead spot and stickiness at low voltages):
This represents about 2.78 revolutions per second per volt.

What about the voltage reversal case?


Once again, the first part of the motion moves faster than what can be fitted with an exponential curve (which might be the underlying dynamic), but the exponents look follow a familiar pattern

1, 1, 83, 88, 91, 89, 88, 89, 92, 87, 90, 88, 87, 84, 78, 79, 69, 56, 61, 57, 52, 49, 43, 41, 39, 34, 35, 31, 31, 29

(There might be a consistent factor of 400 missing from all of these numbers.)

The conclusion is that there might be a kinematic model for this motor where you calculate the revs per second as 2.78*voltage, subtract this from the current revs per second, multiply by 74, and reckon that this will be the rate of change in revs per second at this exact moment.

Any departure from this free-space model means that there’s something interesting going on, such as the tool is encountering material. If you know the voltage to velocity to energy conversions we might be able to tell how the material is responding.

The long term objective is to replace the expensive no-feedback-black-box Servo Motor Drives that receive step and direction pulses from the Machinekit/Beaglebone controller with a position-encoder-to-PWM generator programmed on the Beaglebone itself factored through an H-bridge.

What a Servo Motor Drive does is receive position commands from the controller in the form of step and direction, and combines them with position measurements from the quadrature position encoder on the servo motor, and delivers a variable positive or negative voltage (actually PWM at about 60kHz on 40 volts) to the servo motor to drive it towards the commanded position.

In educational examples this conventionally done using a PID control which, say, every 1/20th of a second compares the actual position to the commanded position and updates the voltage accordingly. However, this is not exactly what I observed when I analysed one of these Servo Motor Drives with an oscilloscope.

What happens when there is a load?

We tried a few patterns on the polar graph where the pen setup is lifted and lowered by a servo motor, like so:

These experiments produced a position graph like so:


The setting of the voltages was as follows:

*cmpa_reg = 500; // halfway zero net voltage
for (j = 0; j < 12000; j++) {
    if (j == 10) 
        *cmpa_reg = 420; 
    if (j == 5000)   // brief 10ms reversal of voltage
        *cmpa_reg = 620; 
    if (j == 5020)
        *cmpa_reg = 420; 
    if (j == 8000)   // set back to "zero"
        *cmpa_reg = 500; 

At the point where the voltage is turned off, there’s this consistent 0.06second dwell at the servo motor before it starts to fall:

This must be due to the upward velocity of the weight flying up at about 0.3m/s in freefall before it begins to fall after 0.03*g seconds until it reaches the same height 0.06seconds after it had been initially thrown upwards.

Here is a closeup of the 10ms voltage reversal bounce.
Remember, the position is of the motor, which starts going the other way as soon as the voltage changes, while the weight might be in freefall. Then there are a few oscillations after it catches it.

It’s not ideal to be testing this with a weight on a string. The kinematics of a rigid machine with ball-screws might be easier to model. However, we’re not going to do that until we have super-fast limit switches and working cut-offs (as well as our quick-blow fuses) as the damage that can be done is far more severe.

Come to Video Hackday (New York, May 7) by Albert Wenger

Susan, Oliver and the team at Ziggeo are organizing the second annual Video Hackday. You will learn the latest about video APIs from companies including Twilio, JW Player and of course Ziggeo

The first video hackday was a blast. I gave a talk on No Stack Startups and even managed to write a small hack myself. This year I will again be one of the judges for the hackathon.

So if you are at all interested in video (and who isn’t?) you should definitely sign up and attend

LightSail 2 engineers continue to test for success by The Planetary Society

It's been a busy two months of system testing for The Planetary Society's LightSail 2 spacecraft. More trials are on the horizon, including a trip to a special magnetic cage at Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory.

April 18, 2016

Rise Of The Trollbot by Charlie Stross

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Hugh Hancock, your friendly neighbourhood crafter of tales about supernatural get-rich-quick schemes gone horribly wrong, back with another bit of musing on what the Chatbot Future holds... See also Part 1 - Sexbots and Part 2 - Magical Beasts

In "Accelerando", Charlie posited the idea of a swarm of legal robots, creating a neverending stream of companies which exchange ownership so fast they can't be tracked.

It's rather clear to me that the same thing is about to happen to social media. And possibly politics.

What makes me so sure?

Microsoft's Tay Chatbot. Oh, and the state of the art in Customer Relationship Management software.

Turing Test 2: Is The Bot Distinguishable From An Asshole?

Microsoft unleashed its conversational bot on Twitter, and 4chan's /pol/ unleashed their opinions - or possibly their sense of humour - on it in turn. Hours later, it was a racist asshole.

But that's not the interesting bit.

The interesting and worrying part of the entire test was that it became a plausible, creative racist asshole. A lot of the worst things that Tay is quoted as saying were the result of users abusing the "repeat" function, but not all. It came out with racist statements entirely off its own bat. It even made things that look disturbingly like jokes.

Add a bit of DeepMind-style regret-based learning to the entire process - optimising toward replies or retweets, say - and you have a bot that on first glance, and possibly second through fourth glance, is indistinguishable from a real, human shitposter.

A lot of ink has been spilled worrying about what this says about the Internet. But that's the wrong thing to worry about.

The right thing to worry about is what the Internet is going to look like after more than one Tay is unleashed on it.

More than a hundred. More than a thousand.

Have you ever joked that you wished you could clone yourself?

Well, it looks like if you're an extremist of any stripe who spends a lot of time on social media, you'll soon be able to fulfil that dream.

The Trollswarm Cometh

Swarms of real life, human trolls have already been able to achieve some remarkable things.

For example, there's the well-known incident where Time's Man Of The Year Poll met 4chan. Twice.

But real-life trolls have to sleep. They have to eat. Whilst it might not look like it, they get tired, and angry, and dispirited.

Chatbots don't.

And the only limit to the number of trollbots you can control is the amount of processing power they require. That might initially look like a pretty major limiter, given that machine-learning applications tend to require at least a single graphics card of some power each. But a), thanks to cloud computing that's actually pretty affordable - an Amazon GPU instance on Spot Pricing will cost you $0.13 an hour or a little over 2 dollars a day - and b) there's no reason that one instance of the trollbot software can't control hundreds of social media accounts all posting frantically.

So what does this mean?

1: Everyone Can Have Their Own Twitter Mob

Right now, if you want to have someone attacked by a horde of angry strangers, you need to be a celebrity. That's a real problem on Twitter and Facebook both, with a few users in particular becoming well-known for abusing their power to send their fans after people with whom they disagree.

But remember, the Internet's about democratising power, and this is the latest frontier. With a trollbot and some planning, this power will soon be accessible to anyone.

There's a further twist, too: the bots will get better. Attacking someone on the Internet is a task eminently suited to deep learning. Give the bots a large corpus of starter insults and a win condition, and let them do what trolls do - find the most effective, most unpleasant ways to attack someone online.

No matter how impervious you think you are to abuse, a swarm of learning robots can probably find your weak spot.

On a milder but no less effective note, even a single bot can have a devastating effect if handled carefully.

The rule of Internet debate is that, all else being equal, the poster with the most available time wins.

On its own, a bot probably can't argue convincingly enough to replace a human in, say, a Reddit thread on gender politics. But can it be used to produce some posts, bulk out rough comments, make short comments requiring longer answers, or otherwise increase the perceived available time of a poster tenfold?

Fear the automated sealion.

2: On The Internet, No-one Knows Their Friend Is A Dog.

In many ways, the straightforward trollswarm approach is the least threatening use of this technology. A much more insidious one is to turn the concept on its head - at least initially - and optimise the bots for friendliness.

Let's say you wish to drive a particular group of fly-fishers out of the fishing community online for good.

Rather than simply firing up a GPU instance and directing it to come up with the world's best fly-fishing insults, fire it up and direct it to befriend everyone in the fly-fishing community. This is eminently automatable: there are already plenty of tools out there which allow you to build up your Twitter following in a semi-automated manner (even after Twitter clamped down on "auto-following"), and Tay was already equipped to post memes. A decent corpus, a win condition of follows, positive-sentiment messages and RTs, and a bot could become a well-respected member of a social media community in months.

THEN turn the bot against your enemies. Other humans will see the fight too. If your bot's doing a half-decent job - and remember, it's already set up to optimise for RTs - real humans, who have actual power and influence in the community, will join in. They may ban the people under attack from community forums, give them abuse offline, or even threaten their jobs or worse.

For even more power and efficiency, don't do this with one bot. One person starting a fight is ignorable. Twenty, fifty or a hundred respected posters all doing it at once - that's how things like Gamergate start.

(And of course, the choice of persona for the bots, and how they express their grievances, will be important. Unfortunately we already have a large corpus of information on how to craft a credible narrative and cause people to feel sympathy for our protagonist - storytelling. If the bot-controller has a decent working knowledge of "Save The Cat" or "Story", that'll make the botswarm all the more effective...)

3: You're A Bot, I'm A Bot, Everyone's A Bot (Bot)

In order to pull all these tricks off, of course, the bot will need a bunch of social media accounts. That would seem like the obvious weak spot: they can just get banned.

Except that if there's one thing a semi-intelligent almost-turing-test-capable bot is going to be good at, it'll be generating social media accounts. And even better than that, a swarm of bots will be almost unstoppably good at it.

It's very easy already to create a bot that will sit there patiently generating a history of Tweets - I've done it myself with my anti-filter-bubble bot. And Tweet history, or posting history, is one of the big giveaways of a sockpuppet account: very few people have the patience to build up a convincing history with their sockpuppets. But a bot can solve that. Tay might not be 100% plausible, but is she plausible enough to generate a convincing Twitter history for your new racist-bot? I'd say yup.

And I'm not the only one. Black-hat SEO marketers have long used software called "Spinners" to create semi-unique pieces of text to post as articles or spam onto forums or comments to generate search engine rankings. I won't link to it here, but the big up-and-coming news in the SEO spinning world is AI, with several products claiming to use Tay-like algorithms to generate much better "spun" content that will pass both human moderator and Google checks.

(To the best of my knowledge no-one's creating an XRunner-like product - a forum / comment posting product - incorporating Deep Learning to optimise for comments that get approved. Yet. Give it five years. To be fair, that might end up being an unexpectedly positive arms race.)

But as I mentioned, a botswarm will be far better. The other big giveaway for fake accounts is that they don't interact with a larger community. Now, a bot on its own can already deal with that to an extent - indeed, the big news in using Twitter for sales right now are AI tools that interact with users before passing them on to a sales team. But a swarm of bots can form its own communities. They can have discussions. They can Like and Comment on each others' posts (particularly powerful on Facebook, where the visibility of a post is determined by interactions from other users).

And as a human, you may not even be aware that in the community you're interacting with on Twitter, fully half the members are bots controlled by a single person. You'll interact back. And that just builds more viability for the bots and whatever their owner's ultimate endgame is.

4: Don't Do That. The Bots Won't Like It.

And here we get on to, in my opinion, the most terrifying use of the trollswarm: controlling filter bubbles.

A straight-up trollswarm is scary and unpleasant, sure, but it's a blunt tool. For maximum effectiveness, what you need is a scowlswarm.

In this case, you-as-bot-owner would never full-out order the trolls to attack. Instead, you just have them disapprove.

You set up a filter to have some of them - not all, just two or three - respond to mentions of your target outgroup with negative comments.

  • "Do you really read his blog?".
  • "Personally I find her offensive - don't you?".
  • "You should be careful about @target_user - didn't you hear about last year?"

You have them monitor for statements made by your target which attract negative reactions, and have your bot amplify that and retweet the statement. You monitor for negative-sentiment messages at the target, and amplify that too. You have them attempt to bait the target into strongly-negative-sentiment statements. Every so often, you have one of the bots outright lie about something bad that your targets did, and the other bots signal-boost it.

And the result is that the filter bubble of everyone who interacts with those bots - which are still firing off inspirational memes and sending people supportive messages the rest of the time - becomes tilted more and more strongly toward "this group of people are bad".

This is almost exactly the same effect as the kind of media-manipulation many people are worried Facebook could undertake, but in the hands of any anonymous yahoo who has the skills and patience to set up and train a group of chatbots. And it could be applied to much smaller targets - right down to individual people.

It'll be even more effective on a social media site like Reddit, where a swarm of bots could also upvote and downvote content. In general, so-called "social bookmarking" sites are terrifyingly vulnerable to somewhat-smart bots. It's already the case that it's almost possible to algorithmically optimise for upvotes (ask any high-karma user for tips on how to achieve said high karma, and it turns out there are a large bunch of shortcuts). A few hundred intelligently-run bots could invisibly dominate a significant-sized subreddit, upvoting or downvoting their target content. Provided they don't do dumb things that get them noticed as a voting ring, they'd be very difficult indeed to detect.

As a final note, another alarming use of socialbots on social bookmarking sites would be to burn out moderators. Moderator burnout is already a significant issue as most of them are volunteers: if you have a subreddit that you want to dominate but can't because there's a particularly clued-in mod, just turn up the shitposting bots to 11, blast the subreddit with almost-but-not-quite useful content mixed with some really unpleasant stuff, increase their workload 10-fold, and wait for them to quit.

So there you have it. Welcome to 2018 or so. Half your social media friends are probably robots - and they're probably the half that you like the most. Every so often one of the remaining humans gets driven off the Internet thanks to a furious 24/7 Twitter assault that might be a zeitgeist moment, or might just be a bot assault. And you can't even tell if what you think is the zeitgeist is entirely manufactured by one guy with an overheating graphics card and a Mission.

What do you think? Is there a horrific use of the trollbot I've not thought of? Or a reason this definitely won't come to pass?

The robots are coming ... for whom the bell tolls. by Simon Wardley

I often read articles about how machine intelligence and robotics will replace basic roles in society, they will become the new drivers, the new waiters, the new hospital porters and nurses of this world. But is this likely? And if they are going to replace jobs then whose job are they most suited to?

With questions like this I tend to look through three lenses - ability, cost and acceptability. Does it have the ability to do a better job at a reasonable cost and would we accept it? For example, let us take the idea of a waiter. Certainly there's some mileage in terms of a marketing gimmick to begin with but humans are surprisingly good at taking orders, delivering food and cleaning up tables. Humans are also relatively cheap compared to the current cost of machine intelligence and robotics to replace them and in general though we might be able to trust a robot to deliver our food, would the banter be the same and would it be as socially acceptable to customers? Beyond the gimmick, I doubt this change will happen for quite a long time.

However, there are other groups where ability, cost and acceptability are far more positive for replacement. One possible candidate is that of the CEO. The CEO? Of a company? Surely not? Well, I think so. Lets go through the reasons.


From my experience, most CEOs tend to demonstrate poor situational awareness, an inability to decipher doctrine from context specific play and the boardrooms are more akin to alchemy, gut feel and whatever is popular in the HBR than to chess playing masters. Various studies have questioned the impacts of CEOs e.g. Markus Fitza's study demonstrated that the CEO effect on firm performance varies little from chance

From my own work, I noticed a connection between situational awareness, action and performance back in 2012. This was from Silicon Valley companies which are supposed to be top of the game. When I broadened examination outside of the Valley, I found situational awareness tended to decline.

So rather than being a Darwinian competition of survival of the fittest where all conquering CEOs battle each other in a game of wits, there's another less charitable way of looking at this - survival of the least incompetent. It's governed by the same rules but rather than a positive chess like game of survival, it's more random with the occasional hero characters. A bit like the brawl of new players in fantasy role playing.

When I started modelling competition between actors, I found a disturbing similarity between competition between blind actors using chance and what is happening to company age of leading companies (results of various tests compared to real life shown below). I tend to therefore side with the view of Markus Fitza. 

Given that situational awareness can be improved, that doctrine and context specific play can be learned and we've seen first hand the experience of companies failing to understand basic lessons and being disrupted by highly predictable change (e.g. cloud) then we have to ask whether this is just inertia, blindness or caused by some other motivation?  CEOs are not daft people but then neither are fund managers and the vast majority were outperformed by simple trackers of financial indices. From my experience, this is an area where machine intelligence might vastly improve on the performance of the incumbent workers.


The other upside of replacing the CEO with machine intelligence is cost. Unlike your average waiter, CEOs aren't cheap - they tend to be very expensive. Now, whilst Marissa Mayer's performance at CEO of Yahoo has not been bad (despite what many think, the company has maintained its revenue and grown its share price), the question becomes whether this has been worth the speculated $365 million for 5 years of work.  It doesn't actually matter how much the final figure is, we simply know it'll be a lot. In general, there's a lot more money on the table replacing the CEO than there is your average worker.


But CEOs lead us! You wouldn't trust a robot! Well, that tends to be the idea in the hallowed walls of management thinking. But we're already becoming directly used to machines taking life and death decisions for us in areas such as driving cars. Most people tend to be motivated by autonomy, the ability to gain mastery, purpose (as in direction) and financial rewards. Using cell based structures, maps and other tools (e.g. pioneer, settler and town planners) then it should be possible for most to create such an environment. A machine can as easily as a human manager direct a cell of pioneers to go do what they are good at by exploring an uncertain area to see what is found. Equally, at the other extreme a machine is just as capable of telling a cell of town planners to look at industrialising something and it is even more likely to take rational decisions without inertia and sentimental motivation or past political capital. Also, a machine is perfectly capable of learning the basic economic patterns that apply to an environment. The failures of companies such as IBM, HP and others in cloud are executive failures, human error against highly predictable changes. 

At Canonical (Ubuntu) we simply exploited the predictable in order to take us from a small fraction of the market to 70% of all cloud computing in around 18 months, and Ubuntu has maintained that position since. Had we been up against machines rather than human executives then I'm not sure we could have got away with it and we certainly couldn't have used inertia against others. I somehow doubt people will have a problem with machine intelligence as the CEO if it leads to more stability, more security and the ability to enhance autonomy and mastery. Given these conditions I suspect many would happily cheer for our robot overlords - "hey, are you're still running with that old Cyberdyne systems CEO? We've just installed the new HAL 9000, it comes with better stock performance and added EQ with moral imperative subroutines. Everyone is really happy."

Except of course, there's one group that wouldn't cheer - those desiring to be CEO or those who are CEO. This would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. If such a change was to happen then it would have to be through testing first in startups and then activist investors. 

However, given all the roles that could be replaced then on a basis of ability, cost and acceptability then the average CEO seems as good if not a far better bet than your average waiter. There are always exceptions to rules but it's certainly worth thinking about.

Update 18th April

Since this kicked off a particular discussion, it's time to come clean.

I chose the CEO as the 'sacred cow' of management thinking. However, on a ability, cost and acceptability basis then there are many attractive targets from lawyers, to finance, to hospital executives. There are many areas of white collar work that appear more financially attractive to replacement by machine intelligence and in many cases, I do mean replacement and not additive because the bar is so low, the costs are high and it would be acceptable.

We've already got companies working on industrialising contract writing with AI, we already have robo finance / investment advisors and I don't see that robo managers are that big a hurdle to jump. There's just more margin, more profit to be made in this space and the idea of robo nurses to waiters - complex tasks which humans are good at and can do cheaply - just doesn't seem to make that much financial sense at this time.

In my view it's not the blue collar workers that need to be immediately worried about robots / machine intelligence but instead the white collar workers who think they're not the target. Of course, this does open up questions about what the world will look like if it's all managed by robots but we'll leave that to another post.

My Favourite Film of 1950. by Feeling Listless

Film One of the benefits of my MA Screen Studies course ten years ago was that many of the modules on offer were multi-discipline, or rather were being offered by departments other than drama. So although there was the potential to stay in that corner of the campus, I decided that I'd make my time there as eclectic as possible and so as well as courses in the Modern Language and English departments, I was able to avail myself of a "Science, Media and the Public" course in the science faculty.

Of all the modules, it's this which strayed far from the apparent remit of the MA because as well as screenings that included old episodes of US Horizon equivalent NOVA, Canadian sci-fi series Regenesis, British fantasies The Eleventh Hour and Afterlife, there were readings of such things as The Watchmen (years before Zac Snyder's adaptation). The one film we were shown was Destination Moon which was at least in terms of speculative fiction, how it was assumed people would indeed travel to the moon, a couple of decades before it actually happened.

The main theme of the course was that as with every aspect of human experience and culture, the communication of science is always about moulding a message, deciding which elements of science are relevant to a story being told and that even in shows like Horizon or scientific papers we're not always told the whole story, plenty is trimmed in order to make what we're presented understandable and palatable. There is always an agenda even if the agenda is understanding.

The final essay asked us to take a particular subject and compare and contrast how that subject has been communicated through two or three forms. Attempting to be clever clever I chose the longitude prize and particularly how Dava Sobel's seminal popular science history book began life as a magazine article and was adapted firstly into a co-produced episode of Horizon and NOVA and the Charles Sturridge drama made by Channel 4, co-starring Michael Gambon and John Harrison, the clockmaker who cracked the navigational problem and Jeremy Irons as the teacher who restored his time-pieces.

Here is the essay.  When this was submitted it also included a copy of the original article and other background material I think.  Here's a link to a pdf of the Harvard article. You can buy the book here.  The NOVA version of the Horizon episode is here. You can buy the Longitude miniseries here.

Now, onwards:

Dava Sobel’s 1995 book Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, charted the endeavour to discover a practicable method of defining longitude at sea for navigation. As indicated in the title, Sobel’s approach was to highlight the work of one man, John Harrison, and the series of clocks that he developed in an attempt to win a prize that was defined by an act of parliament and enacted by a ‘Board of Longitude’ who assessed all of the proposed methods over some decades. Sobel’s book was based upon an earlier magazine article and would later be adapted into both a television science documentary and a drama mini-series.

The appearance of the material in these four different formats offers the ability to compare how the same piece of science is presented and explained in four disparate media texts. Although to some extent it is worthwhile discussing how the communication of science within these works is effected by the elevation of Harrison’s contribution, because of the brevity of this essay a single strand of the science outside of that narrative, the definition of longitude, will be studied and each of the four media text will be compared to demonstrate how the creator has taken advantage of the relative benefits of each, and how successful they have been at communicating the message to and the effects it may have upon the intended audience.

Sobel’s first article on the subject of longitude as published in Harvard Magazine is atypical of the four texts being analysed because, whilst presenting much the same narrative, it is actually a report of the proceedings of a three day international symposium investigating the subject, which took place at the Memorial Hall in Harvard University between the 4th and 6th November 1993. The magazine had originally declined the idea for an article and Sobel had attempted publication in a series of popular science magazines, with National Geographic notably being interested although they were unable to decide how to illustrate the piece so the idea was shelved (underlining that in such magazines some kind of angle is usually required for a story to be published). Then, just two days before the symposium, when the size of event that was taking place was becoming apparent to the magazine editors, Sobel was contacted again and would attend saying later that it ‘was about the best science meeting I’ve ever gone to, and I cover these things all the time.’

Harvard Magazine’s readership contains a high proportion of alumni from the university (the letters page lists not only the name of the correspondent and their location, but also their year of graduation) but nevertheless Sobel has written this article in a style that would be legible to a general readership. Bernard Dixon argues that when writing scientific articles ‘non-specialised terms that are clear and unambiguous in their meaning should be used whenever possible in place of less familiar jargon, if only to make an article or paper as accessible to the widest possible range of readers.’ Although Dixon was writing in relation to articles that appear in science magazines, this piece has been composed to similar guidelines, with the more complicated elements being given a full explanation. Indeed, the writer has also taken advantage of the accepted journalistic technique of autobiographically describing the events including her own reactions to the science as it unfolds, quoting and paraphrasing from the speakers to present the information to the reader. This has the effect of placing the reader in Sobel’s point of view, giving them a sense of the whole event, as well as the content of the lectures themselves, making the science itself much more attractive.

Since the symposium was attended by academics who would have had a clear understanding of longitude concepts and therefore did not mention them during their contributions, Sobel cleverly adds extra commentary in places to clarify various points and it is in these short sections that the journalist explains which lines of a typical globe are longitudinal and how the degrees of the earth relate to time. Firstly, on the opening page during a description of the late Alistair Cooke’s humorous introductory lecture. Secondly, after a direct quote from a speech by David Landes, the Coolidge professor of history and professor of economics at Harvard, weighing up the relative methods of both the lunar and clock methods of navigation. Sobel apparently understood that to underpin the endeavour of finding longitude the reader must be aware of the concept and its importance to shipping. These additions have the effect of reminding the reader of a concept that they may already have been aware of through general knowledge or schooling in service of describing an endeavour that may be less clear to them. Since the concepts are given less weight in the text, they are easily ignored by readers who already have enough of an understanding to be able to follow the rest of the text, yet also accessible enough to those who require a refresher.

It should also be noted that although the article contains many illustrations, there are no pictorial representations of the lines of longitude, which implies that the editor believed that Sobel’s additional words were sufficient. The main illustration on the opening pages, of a naval disaster, is the first iteration of a narrative strand that appears in all four texts of the wrecking of a fleet because of poor navigation leading to the ratification of the longitude prize. The inclusion of the tragedy underlines for the audience the vital importance at the time of finding practicable method for recording longitude at sea – in other words that finding longitude is important because it saves lives, a methodology common in many popular science texts.

Given the opportunity to expand the subject matter of the conference and the article into a book length text , Sobel initially sought the advice of her publishers, who advised her to ‘keep it short. This is not an encyclopaedic treatise. This is an explanation of an aspect of science to intelligent people who know nothing about this subject. That’s what you’re trying to do.’ In its original none illustrated publication the book is just a hundred and seventy five pages long with fifteen chapters – this places it is more in the format of a novel than what might be expected to be a traditional science text. The writing style is chatty and anecdotal -- at a conference after publication related to popular historical science writing Sobel reportedly explained that she wrote the book ‘as an imaginary conversation with her mother (a sailing enthusiast)’ – which places the writer in the position of storyteller presenting a narrative to a receptive audience who are put at ease.

It would appear that Sobel decided that the readership might require a narrative hook and point of access into the story. As was indicated in the introduction, the approach was to highlight the contribution of John Harrison and give the book the tropes of a standard heroic narrative as a protagonist risks all against a villainous antagonist (in this case, astronomers) for the sake of an ideal. Whilst, the focus of this essay does not allow for a wider discussion of the accuracy of emphasising Harrison’s contribution to solving the longitude problem, it must be acknowledged that Sobel’s prioritising of his work does effect the presentation of the science in the text; in those first six chapter’s before Harrison is introduced, the writer is actually emphasising the weight of the problem that the clockmaker must surmount rather than offering an in-depth analysis of the whole story. This averts a reader who might be more interested in the human story from being alienated by the science that surrounds it.

Sobel’s central theme is of science as a human endeavour rather than as an abstract concept. Throughout the book, rather than offering dry, purely scientific explanations, Sobel instead contextualises the science using a repeated methodology of opening out the human element from Harrison’s story to the whole text. In the ensuing chapters, whenever an item of scientific idea is to be discussed, a scientist is usually highlighted first and then the science itself is presented as a result of their decision making process. This method is not always successful, since the coherence of the scientific concept at hand is frequently submerged in the apparent personality of that scientist. Since Reverend Maskyline is one of the antagonists of the ‘story’, as Davida Charney explains, the writer ‘frequently treats the lunar method as a patently inadequate approach, rather than as an alternative that was at least equally plausible’ which has the effect of corrupting the scientific explanation at the expense of the narrative agenda giving the reader a false impression. It should be noted, however, that in explaining how the distance between lines of longitude are measured the writer does not assign a particular identity; she begins with ‘Any sailor worth his salt can gauge his latitude well enough by the length of the day,’ making the measurement important to everyman.

Whilst this slant could be considered populist, it acknowledges Paola Govani’s argument that in these publications there should be ‘different levels of communication, for different readers, or for different needs of the same reader,’ because the target audience for the book will be interested in the human ingredients of the story. As well as layering her own explanations into quotations from scientists and technologists as a way of providing authority, Sobel introduces autobiographical elements that present a less obvious way of colouring the greyer theoretical aspects. The opening definition of longitude occurs during the description of a memory from Sobel’s own childhood, of a trip to New York and the gift of a skeletal globe by her father. The text is infused with a high degree of description, allowing the reader to visualise the globe in their imagination so that they are aware that the book will indeed concern itself with those vertical lines. Sobel herself returns to the narrative in the final chapter in which she described a trip to Greenwich, giving the book the impression of being a journey, that the reader is has discovered this science alongside with the author.

Sobel’s autobiographical introduction does emphasise a technique that would see greater prominence in the Horizon Special and is repeated throughout the text – the introduction of modern elements into the generally historical analysis so that they are more accessible to a contemporary readership. On page five, Sobel advises that ‘Precise knowledge of the hour in two different places at once – a longitude prerequisite so easily accessible today from any pair of cheap wristwatches – was utterly unattainable up to and including the era of pendulum clocks’ vividly illustrating how the relatively primitive technology of the time was being pushed into service to overcome a seemingly intractable dilemma. Contemporary social concerns are also invoked later to stress how much of a concern longitude was to the people of the time – ‘just as any alert schoolchild nowadays knows that cancer cries out for a cure and that there’s no good way to get rid of nuclear waste’ – again the reader is left in little doubt as to why the reward was so high and why so many people were searching for a solution.

The Horizon documentary was originally broadcast as part of the Nova strand on PBS in the United States, appeared on BBC Two on 4th January 1999 and premiered as the opening documentary in the ‘Time Season’. It was also the first programme to feature the BBC Millennium bumper signalling a twelve-month collection of programmes connected with what were the upcoming celebrations. Accompanying publicity in the Radio Times and at the BBC News website indicated to the potential audience that the documentary was based on Dava Sobel’s book. This explicit mentioning of the sourcing of a Horizon programme from an existing work (the book and author are crediting in the closing titles) is unusual for the programme and the connection to two major television events indicates that a marketing attempt was being made to attract viewers outside of the core audience of the series, including those who have read Sobel’s work. This would have some impact how the science is presented.

Roger Silverstone argues that science documentaries should ‘seek to entertain, to seduce by the beauty of their images, by their management of suspense, hope and tragedy, by the wit and elegance of their narration, by the power of their voice.’ This documentary is a perfect demonstration of this ethic. Led by an emotive voiceover, the programme luxuriates in dramatisations of Harrison in thought and work, with the clockmaker (as played by actor Patrick Malahide) soliloquising sections of his memoirs. As José van Dijck indicates, re-enactments are usually twinned with the exposition of an authority such as a scientist with the result being that ‘a fiction effect (is) made subordinate to the reality effect.’ In this documentary the realistic strand is spearheaded by contemporary footage of a training ship, Eye of the Wind, and the recreation of early navigation techniques, accompanied by interjections from William Andrewes, curator of Historic Scientific Instruments from Harvard University. A third strand utilises computer enhanced or generated montages together with the voiceover to explain scientific ideas that cannot be demonstrated in any of the other strands.

The programme makers marshal all three strands together to explain the theory behind longitude in even clearer detail than any of the other three media should allow. The rate of knots is demonstrated using the non-diagetic words of expert Andrewes over footage of a practical demonstration by the crew of the Eye of the Wind. The explanation of the vertical lines and the degrees between, are centred on two computer-animated sequences, each of which are presented in the same visual style. Silvestone argues that science on television should be presented to an audience of ‘presumed non-specialised and non-student audience’ and on this occasion the information is as clear as possible with an uncomplicated voiceover and deceptively simple imagery. Watching a swirling animated globe covered in a map contemporaneous with Harrison’s time, floating through a sepia universe, the audience is able to grasp that this is a historic issue dating back many centuries. In each sequence the globe is animated simultaneously with the voice over illuminating the science at hand – the latitudinal and longitudinal lines being removed, for example, to indicate to the audience which is which.

In essentially adapting the book into a documentary format, the programme makers take the opportunity to explain visually those elements that Dava Sobel’s book could only describe textually and metaphorically. The audience’s understanding of the science changes because they are able to appreciate it representationally rather than within their own imagination. That said, because it is an adaptation, those elements that changed the understanding of the science, the Harrison as hero narrative and the supposed inadequacies of the lunar method are also apparent; the computer animated sections are even employed later to present humorously the apparently less serious attempts at finding the answer, such as the ‘howling dog’ method. This has the effect of compromising the balance of a series that according to Carl Gardner and Robert M. Young is ‘unique in remaining totally expository’ and ‘neutral’ potentially fogging the audience’s understanding of the whole subject.

The Channel Four mini-series (broadcast as the linchpin of their millennium coverage on the 2nd and 3rd January 2000) is a wholly dramatic construct presenting the story of John Harrison. The programme essentially adapts as an adventure narrative, chapters seven to thirteen of the Longitude book. Unlike the Horizon producers, the intent of writer and director Charles Sturridge was not educational since he had been commissioned to produce something wholly entertaining, an approach highlighted in a publicity interview for Radio Times magazine in which he strenuous denied that the programme was meant to be intellectually demanding -- he was creating something that was ‘built to be as embracing as possible.’ As Rima and Michael Apple indicate, the science that appears on screen in these historical science dramas is filtered through ‘the demands of filmmaking itself.’ Unlike the book and the Horizon documentary which to some extent used Harrison’s story as a way of making the concepts palatable, in the mini-series the science becomes a slave to the narrative and is only included for dramatic purposes.

The most significant adaptation change is to split the storyline between parallel protagonists. As well as the Harrison, Sturridge introduces the story of Rupert Gould, the former army officer who had been instrumental in restoring the earlier clockmaker’s timepieces during the 1930s. Gould merits just a few pages towards the end of Sobel’s book, but Sturridge opens out his story, weaving it through that of Harrison. In dramatic terms, this allows the director to create tension when the Harrison narrative lacks excitement (for example during the twenty year creation of the H-3 clock) but it also provides the same capability, as the footage shot on board the Eye of the Wind for the Horizon documentary, of explaining in close to modern context for the audience those scientific concepts that were key to Harrison’s work (and also it has to be said underline for the viewer the Harrison legend).

Since the dramatic weight of the story is behind Harrison and Gould, that science which is included in the programme predominantly revolves around the technological innovations of the clocks. For example, in order to underline the evidence of Harrison’s craftsmanship before he became involved in the marine timepieces, one scene features Gould in the roof of a barn introducing the wooden clock and the grasshopper escapement to his daughter in simplistic terms and these are followed by a very expository scene in which the keeper of clock explains to Gould’s wife (in one of the few moments that she would appear express interest in time pieces) that it doesn’t require cleaning. There is little mention of the men who worked before Harrison’s time who attempted to solve the longitude problem (chapters one to five of the book) and the astronomical solution is now reduced to an antagonistic concept that is not explained with any great detail. The clarification of the concept of longitude occurs during two distinct but connected scene setting sequences at the opening of the programme separate from the main narrative, as though an acknowledgement has been made that the audience requires some awareness of these underlining concepts, but that they should not be understood to be as dramatically important part of the ensuing plot.

The first of the sequences is more successful in presenting the message than the second. Both include a narration read by someone presumed to be Dava Sobel (although this isn’t indicated) that outlines the concepts using words adapted from the opening chapter of the book. In the first pre-title sequence the biographical nature of the opening chapter of the book is melded with the pictorial representation of the Horizon documentary, as the lines of longitude are explained to the audience using sepia mock-home movie footage recreating young Sobel’s trip to New York with the beaded wire ball and the globe that Atlas shoulders above the Rockefeller centre appearing at the centre of the frame capturing the audience’s attention. In the second, the weight of didactic explanation for latitude and longitude is left to the narration during a virtuoso computer enhanced helicopter shot that begins floating across in a city, speeds across the ocean and ends in the thrall of the doomed English fleet. On this second occasion, although the accent is still on visual spectacle, because the narration and images are not connected, the audience’s attention is split and arguably the science on display becomes more confusing and complicated, especially since they are denied the ability to absorb the information again as they would re-reading the section in the book.

To conclude. In the Harvard Magazine article, Sobel was able through the words of the academics gathered for the symposium, to communicate clearly the story of longitude, her short textual enhancements improving the audience’s understanding of those concepts whose omission might have rendered the article less understandable. Whatever criticisms may be levelled at the author’s narrative approach to the book, highlighting Harrison’s contribution over others, because her writing is accessible and filled with vivid descriptions and metaphor the general audience towards whom the text is focussed is wholly able to grasp the key issues that made the quest for a practicable method so important. In the Horizon documentary, by engaging three different approaches to presenting the information at hand, the programme makers are able to offer explanations in a visually arresting manner with a voice over that is accessible without being needlessly simplistic. The mini-series works dramatically because it does not let the science overshadow the story at its heart, even if those concepts unlike the documentary do become slightly drowned out by the visuals. Although the same essential information is being communicated through these four media texts, each has unique properties that either enhance or betray the audience’s ability to understand the science of longitude.


Longitude: A Horizon Special (1998): Production: Green Umbrella, BBC and WGBH Boston. 45 mins. Directed by Peter Jones.

Longitude (2000): Production: Granada Film Productions. 198 mins (2 parts). Directed by Charles Sturridge.


Apple, R D. and Apple M.W. (1993): “Screening Science,” Isis 84 (4), 750-754.

Charney, D. (2003): “Lone Geniuses in Popular Science,” Written Communication 20 (3), 215-241.

Dijck, J. (2006): “Picturizing science: The science documentary as multimedia spectacle,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 9 (1), 5-24.

Dixon, B. (1993): “Plain Words Please,” New Scientist 137 (1865), 39-40.

Gardener, C. and Young, C.M. (1985): “Science on TV: A Critique,” in Bennett T., Boyd-Bowman S., Mercer C. and Woollacott, J. (eds), Popular Film and Television: A Reader (London: BFI Publishing in association with The Open University Press), 171-93.

Govoni, P. (2005): “Historians of Science and the Sobel Effect,” Journal of Science Communication 4 (1), 1-17.

Booknotes interview: Dava Sobel (1999): , accessed 16 May 2006.

Matthews, M.M. (2004): “Dava Sobel and the Popularization of the History of Science,” From the itinerant lecturers of the 18th century to popularizing physics in the 21st century – exploring the relationship between learning and entertainment: Proceedings of a conference held in Pognana sul Lario, Italy. June 1-6, 2003.. , accessed 18 May 2006.

Silverstone, R. (1985): Framing Science: The Making of a BBC Documentary. (London: British Film Institute).

Smith, R. (1999): “The Test of Time,” Radio Times: 31 December 1999 – 7 January 2000, 304 (3958), 28-30.

Sobel, D. (1994): “Longitude: How The Mystery Was Cracked,” Harvard Magazine, March/April, 44-52.

Sobel, D. (1998): Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time (London: Forth Estate Limited).

April 17, 2016

Gaming, Mental Health and Seeing the Future by The Leveller

Gaming and mental health

Back in the late summer of 2015 I recovered from a long bout of depression after spending 4 years circling the drain and feeling like I had less and less control over my future – something that has felt very common among people of my generation since 2008. I would often find myself on the sofa playing games when I felt low and powerless, indulging in a hobby I’ve had ever since I got to play on my Dad’s Commodore 64 at four years old. I’ve never been concerned by games as part of a ‘power fantasy’ and have always been more interested in the way that games mix exploration and narrative to give a glimpse into worlds other than our own. I have put thousands of hours of my life into gaming – some of my favorite pieces of fiction are in games – whether it’s Grim Fandango, The Stanley Parable, Bioshock or The Last of Us, I genuinely believe gaming has the potential to tell compelling stories to match the best books, TV shows or films.

There are plenty of decent articles about the risks of gaming. How escapism, however temporary, can lead to people becoming addicted, depressed and detached, failing to make real changes in their own lives that will improve their situation and their mental health. It is a real danger that cannot be ignored – that becoming reliant on computer games as a permanent refuge from the real world can compound social isolation and depression – many of my own friends who are gamers have told me as much about their own experiences. But that isn’t the whole story. In my case at least, changing my lifestyle and accessing treatment in the real world was what mainly improved my mental health, but gaming provided a useful outlet during the worst times.

Games can help us to develop empathy, by explaining what depression, isolation and other conditions can be like to people who don’t have them

The capacity for games to provide help for people with mental health issues, and a sense of temporary respite is important to understand. This is the case more than ever, given that the last few years have seen seemingly endless cuts to mental health services and treatment, meaning that someone might have to wait months or even years before seeing a therapist to get the help they need. Games at their best provide engaging stories, innovative ways of developing narratives or breaking conventions and, with the rise of VR – a tool useful for play, but also for real world applications such as art, architecture and medicine – of building worlds to explore and interact with. They can also provide a way of interacting with others and finding a community of like minded people – both offline and online – something very useful for someone who is experiencing the isolation that often goes along with mental health conditions. Games can also help us to develop empathy, by explaining what depression, isolation and other conditions can be like to people who don’t have them, and serve as a useful way of breaking down the stigma that still persists in society and which makes it so difficult to talk about how these conditions are actually experienced.

However, my point is not to talk about whether games are good or bad for mental health – that has already been explored well elsewhere. What I want to talk about instead is the way games could be used to inspire change, to argue that gaming has the power, or at least the potential power, to tell interactive stories about the future that can provide an inspiration for the kind of real world political and social change that would ensure people don’t end up feeling depressed in the first place. After all a huge proportion of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression draw their destructive power from the social reality of the day; problems of overwork, struggling with money, bills and rent, or with issues such as racism, homophobia or sexism.

I’m Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite store on the Citadel.

The designers of the Mass Effect series definitely can’t be accused of a lack of imagination. The story of a sentient race of skyscraper sized bio-organic machines coming to strip all intelligent life from the galaxy is still one of my favorites. I’ve put well over 120 hours into the series exploring the galaxy, completing missions and interacting with hundreds of characters. The trilogy contains a wealth of interesting ideas about a multitude of different species, cultures, technologies, histories and future events to interact with and learn about.

I’m bored by the fact that seemingly every TV show, game or film needs to portray a world which is utterly fucked. I’m just as bored of any politics that acts like people don’t have the capacity to change the world for the better

Mass Effect is probably one of the more interesting visions of the future presented in gaming, a future where humanity has united politically, created incredibly advanced technology and entered the galactic stage to engage in a complicated and intricate society. Most other games from Deus Ex to the Fallout series, even if they are great to play and have imaginative stories, portray a future where the world is a crumbling corporate dystopia, or a post apocalyptic wasteland. Even the Mass Effect series contains elements of dystopia within its generally more optimistic view of the future. Human society is very militarized and one race, the Quarians, have fallen from a hyper advanced, fully automated society to one of exile and near extinction, although to the series’ credit players can resolve this story thread in a way that repairs rather than conforms to its dystopian setting.

I love dystopian fiction, but I’m also increasingly bored by the fact that seemingly every TV show, game or film needs to portray a world which is utterly fucked, now and forever, and which will probably only get worse. I’m just as bored of any politics that acts like people don’t have the capacity to change the world for the better, and that they should therefore give up without even trying. I have what David Graeber calls Despair Fatigue.

There’s a lack of meaningful decisions in open world games that emphasize choice: there are always hidden barriers

Despite being some of my favorite gaming series, Mass Effect still has a problem, something that I could never quite get out of my mind. The games are able to imagine species of sentient robots who can communicate with each other using a data cloud, an entire political and social history of dozens of species, and a future of abundance where asteroids and planets are mined for their resources. But the economy of the galaxy is still a recognizably capitalist one – corporations are everywhere, somehow nearly every species in the galaxy has independently arrived at the same economic model within a specific historical context, business greases the wheels of galactic politics and your character can endorse different shops for a discount. The usual tropes of gaming mean that resources and equipment need to be bought and sold despite being obviously abundant in the universe. As pointed out in other articles about the lack of meaningful decisions in open world games that emphasize choice, there are always hidden barriers – some constrain by game mechanics and technological limits, but others constrain by the vision of the designers. To paraphrase Mark Fisher – it is easier to imagine the end of the galaxy than the end of capitalism.

New Utopias

Gaming as an art form can offer so much more than this partial vision and can be a medium for imagining a fictional future that includes new ways of ordering political, economic and social life. Sadly, it is something that it has not yet fully realized, still mostly tending to either recreate our existing society but with spaceships and AI, or a brutal post apocalyptic landscape with humans living in the crumbling remains of contemporary society – right-wing wet dream The Division being this year’s most blatant example. Gaming (and popular culture in general) has a tendency these days to dwell in dystopian or post apocalyptic versions of humanity’s future.

Even the world of Mad Max: Fury Road contains a narrative in which change is possible even in the darkest times – something that gaming seems to lack

When I was depressed between 2011 and 2015 everything felt negative and ultimately pointless – both personally and when I looked at an economic and political situation that only seemed to get worse across the world. My mood was reflected in the games I was choosing to play, and how I was choosing to spend my time: booze and drug binges and other self destructive behavior on weekends and feeling sorry for myself slumped in front of a console or laptop to help me cope and experience some catharsis in between. Some games create worlds that are incredibly bleak to create a sense of the helplessness and powerlessness in the player which can be a great way to tell a story and dystopian narratives are important in their own right. Mad Max: Fury Road was one of my favorite films in 2015 and Bloodborne, Dark Souls, Papers Please, Limbo and Silent Hill 2 are some of my favorite games precisely because of their negative, oppressive atmospheres. However I would argue that it is important to have a variety of narratives and to also present a vision of the future based on hope and progress in order to inspire people to achieve things, after all even the latest Mad Max film had a central narrative that change is possible even in the darkest times – this is something that gaming seems to lack.

Utopian stories have been a source of political and social inspiration for hundreds, if not thousands of years, they illuminate problems in our present while also modelling solutions for our future. Medieval folk tales about the Land of Cockaigne inspired peasant revolts, while the utopian novels of the 19th century Russian Cosmists, who imagined humans overcoming gravity and social inequality together, acted as a major influence for Soviet policies on space travel – policies which, for all the failures that followed, would eventually lead to the launch of the Sputnik satellite and Yuri Gagarin being the first human in space in 1961. Other examples include early 20th century popular working class culture concerned with getting away from work and having fun, which led to struggles over reducing hours on the job and also contributed to predictions by economists that the working week would be 15 hours or less by 2030. Popular post-WW2 TV shows such as Star Trek and The Jetsons imagined extremely advanced technology and a different social structure (to varying degrees) and have served as the primordial graphical sauce to modern developments and ideas such as green energy, full automation of production and transport, Universal Basic Income, a possible reduction in the working week, 3D printing and virtual reality.

We’re imagining a time when we could become more complete people instead of being identified with one job or another – or being demonized for having no job at all, as the mentally ill usually are

There has been a recent return of (cautious) utopian thinking in politics, providing new visions of the future. From the manifesto of a society with full automation and an end to wage labor presented by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek in Inventing the Future, to ideas of Fully Automated Luxury Communism and universal material abundance championed by Novara Media and others. From Yanis Varoufakis describing his vision of the future as ‘Star Trek’, to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell outlining his vision for 21st century Britain as an entrepreneurial state developing new advanced technologies and ways of organizing society more democratically, or “Socialism with in Ipad”. I have personally found ideas on Universal Incomes and imagining a future of automation, equality and less work to be incredibly inspiring – imagine all the things that could be done instead of pointless paperwork or data entry! Writing, reading, socializing with family and friends, learning new languages, riding my motorbike, photography, playing more games, sleeping, even doing the kind of work that really matters like looking after kids or elderly relatives – the list could go on for pages and pages. In short the power of utopianism is in imagining a time when we could become more complete people instead of being identified with one job or another – or being demonized for having no job at all, as the mentally ill usually are.

The task of creating a vision of a future human society outlined in the likes of Inventing the Future is what Srnicek and Williams call a ‘full spectrum project’ – that is, something which can developed on all levels of society including popular culture, the media and academia, and which will take place over a variety of different time scales. Effective change requires people making demands to be fought for and won, and fiction is a fantastic avenue to provide a vision of the future that we can demand in the real world. The point is not that computer games will solve all of our problems, either personal or societal, but rather that they provide an avenue to explore and spread ideas for use in our everyday lives. In their small way, computer games could be a way of popularizing visions of a better world, and of taking dry academic ideas and making them accessible to a non academic audience. Just as all the best works of utopian fiction have done in the past, computer games can help more people to overcome the seemingly endless sense of despair that has dominated popular culture and politics in recent years.



Image: Ryan Somma

The post Gaming, Mental Health and Seeing the Future appeared first on The Leveller.

April 16, 2016

Here's The Programming Game You Never Asked For by Jeff Atwood

You know what's universally regarded as un-fun by most programmers? Writing assembly language code.

As Steve McConnell said back in 1994:

Programmers working with high-level languages achieve better productivity and quality than those working with lower-level languages. Languages such as C++, Java, Smalltalk, and Visual Basic have been credited with improving productivity, reliability, simplicity, and comprehensibility by factors of 5 to 15 over low-level languages such as assembly and C. You save time when you don't need to have an awards ceremony every time a C statement does what it's supposed to.

Assembly is a language where, for performance reasons, every individual command is communicated in excruciating low level detail directly to the CPU. As we've gone from fast CPUs, to faster CPUs, to multiple absurdly fast CPU cores on the same die, to "gee, we kinda stopped caring about CPU performance altogether five years ago", there hasn't been much need for the kind of hand-tuned performance you get from assembly. Sure, there are the occasional heroics, and they are amazing, but in terms of Getting Stuff Done, assembly has been well off the radar of mainstream programming for probably twenty years now, and for good reason.

So who in their right mind would take up tedious assembly programming today? Yeah, nobody. But wait! What if I told you your Uncle Randy had just died and left behind this mysterious old computer, the TIS-100?

And what if I also told you the only way to figure out what that TIS-100 computer was used for – and what good old Uncle Randy was up to – was to read a (blessedly short 14 page) photocopied reference manual and fix its corrupted boot sequence … using assembly language?

Well now, by God, it's time to learn us some assembly and get to the bottom of this mystery, isn't it? As its creator notes, this is the assembly language programming game you never asked for!

I was surprised to discover my co-founder Robin Ward liked TIS-100 so much that he not only played the game (presumably to completion) but wrote a TIS-100 emulator in C. This is apparently the kind of thing he does for fun, in his free time, when he's not already working full time with us programming Discourse. Programmers gotta … program.

Of course there's a long history of programming games. What makes TIS-100 unique is the way it fetishizes assembly programming, while most programming games take it a bit easier on you by easing you in with general concepts and simpler abstractions. But even "simple" programming games can be quite difficult. Consider one of my favorites on the Apple II, Rocky's Boots, and its sequel, Robot Odyssey. I loved this game, but in true programming fashion it was so difficult that finishing it in any meaningful sense was basically impossible:

Let me say: Any kid who completes this game while still a kid (I know only one, who also is one of the smartest programmers I’ve ever met) is guaranteed a career as a software engineer. Hell, any adult who can complete this game should go into engineering. Robot Odyssey is the hardest damn “educational” game ever made. It is also a stunning technical achievement, and one of the most innovative games of the Apple IIe era.

Visionary, absurdly difficult games such as this gain cult followings. It is the game I remember most from my childhood. It is the game I love (and despise) the most, because it was the hardest, the most complex, the most challenging. The world it presented was like being exposed to Plato’s forms, a secret, nonphysical realm of pure ideas and logic. The challenge of the game—and it was one serious challenge—was to understand that other world. Programmer Thomas Foote had just started college when he picked up the game: “I swore to myself,” he told me, “that as God is my witness, I would finish this game before I finished college. I managed to do it, but just barely.”

I was happy dinking around with a few robots that did a few things, got stuck, and moved on to other games. I got a little turned off by the way it treated programming as electrical engineering; messing around with a ton of AND OR and NOT gates was just not my jam. I was already cutting my teeth on BASIC by that point and I sensed a level of mastery was necessary here that I probably didn't have and I wasn't sure I even wanted.

I'll take a COBOL code listing over that monstrosity any day of the week. Perhaps Robot Odyssey was so hard because, in the end, it was a bare metal CPU programming simulation, like TIS-100.

A more gentle example of a modern programming game is Tomorrow Corporation's excellent Human Resource Machine.

It has exactly the irreverent sense of humor you'd expect from the studio that built World of Goo and Little Inferno, both excellent and highly recommendable games in their own right. If you've ever wanted to find out if someone is truly interested in programming, recommend this game to them and see. It starts with only 2 instructions and slowly widens to include 11. Corporate drudgery has never been so … er, fun?

I'm thinking about this because I believe there's a strong connection between programming games and being a talented software engineer. It's that essential sense of play, the idea that you're experimenting with this stuff because you enjoy it, and you bend it to your will out of the sheer joy of creation more than anything else. As I once said:

Joel implied that good programmers love programming so much they'd do it for no pay at all. I won't go quite that far, but I will note that the best programmers I've known have all had a lifelong passion for what they do. There's no way a minor economic blip would ever convince them they should do anything else. No way. No how.

I'd rather sit a potential hire in front of Human Resource Machine and time how long it takes them to work through a few levels than have them solve FizzBuzz for me on a whiteboard. Is this interview about demonstrating competency in a certain technical skill that's worth a certain amount of money, or showing me how you can improvise and have fun?

That's why I was so excited when Patrick, Thomas, and Erin founded Starfighter.

If you want to know how competent a programmer is, give them a real-ish simulation of a real-ish system to hack against and experiment with – and see how far they get. In security parlance, this is known as a CTF, as popularized by Defcon. But it's rarely extended to programming, until now. Their first simulation is StockFighter.

Participants are given:

  • An interactive trading blotter interface
  • A real, functioning set of limit-order-book venues
  • A carefully documented JSON HTTP API, with an API explorer
  • A series of programming missions.

Participants are asked to:

  • Implement programmatic trading against a real exchange in a thickly traded market.
  • Execute block-shopping trading strategies.
  • Implement electronic market makers.
  • Pull off an elaborate HFT trading heist.

This is a seriously next level hiring strategy, far beyond anything else I've seen out there. It's so next level that to be honest, I got really jealous reading about it, because I've felt for a long time that Stack Overflow should be doing yearly programming game events exactly like this, with special one-time badges obtainable only by completing certain levels on that particular year. Stack Overflow is already a sort of game, but people would go nuts for a yearly programming game event. Absolutely bonkers.

I know we've talked about giving lip service to the idea of hiring the best, but if that's really what you want to do, the best programmers I've ever known have excelled at exactly the situation that Starfighter simulates — live troubleshooting and reverse engineering of an existing system, even to the point of finding rare exploits.

Consider the dedication of this participant who built a complete wireless trading device for StockFighter. Was it necessary? Was it practical? No. It's the programming game we never asked for. But here we are, regardless.

An arbitrary programming game, particularly one that goes to great lengths to simulate a fictional system, is a wonderful expression of the inherent joy in playing and experimenting with code. If I could find them, I'd gladly hire a dozen people just like that any day, and set them loose on our very real programming project.

[advertisement] At Stack Overflow, we put developers first. We already help you find answers to your tough coding questions; now let us help you find your next job.

Spring Issue of The Planetary Report Has Arrived! by The Planetary Society

The Spring 2016 edition of The Planetary Report has just printed and will arrive at our mail house this week. Any member who wants a digital copy can download the issue through our website.

Favorite Astro Plots #4: Classifying Exoplanets by The Planetary Society

Until just a few years ago, a plot of mass versus size of other worlds would have looked pretty sparse and uninformative. But thanks to the tireless efforts of exoplanet astronomers, we now know fairly precise masses and radii for hundreds of distant worlds.

April 15, 2016

The Hardmans' House. by Feeling Listless

Explore the contrasting sides of this house: the neat, professional, spacious business rooms and the cluttered, cramped living quarters of the renowned portrait photographer Edward Chambré Hardman and his wife Margaret. They lived and worked here for 40 years, keeping everything and changing nothing.

The business focused on professional studio portraits but their real love was for vivid landscape images. Some of their huge collection of photographs is on display in the house, along with the equipment they used to take and develop the iconic images.
Photography Or just as accurately in project terms, the local. The Hardmans' House at 59 Rodney Street is the most local of National Trust properties, within walking distance of home and unlike my previous attempt to visit art collections in North West England were I climaxed with the Walker Art Gallery, it seemed best to begin local for the most part and expand outwards.  Plus this wasn't my first visit to the house, having spent an hour there as part of a flickr meet-up back in 2007 (which you can read about here).

Chambre Hardman is perhaps best known for his photograph The Birth of the Ark Royal which shows the Air Craft Carrier, painted white for its launch by the Queen Mother almost hovering above some typically Northern rows of houses, a small boy on his paper round in the foreground (the house's blog as an essay about the photo).  Although portraits were his business, landscape photography was his passion despite its unfashionability during his peak period.  Now, it is through him that Liverpudlians often view their past and I've had this shot from the Liverpool Museum steps on William Brown Street on my wall for years.

The business was actually called Burrell and Hardman, having met his original business partner Kenneth Burrell during their service in the Indian Army.  The initially set up on Bold Street but after their initial success and expansion into Chester (the appointment book listed six or more sitters a day, eight as Christmas), the war took its toll and so after the lease in the original offices ended they moved to the current position.  By then, his wife Margaret was running the business, whom he met when she joined the staff years earlier.  They had a staff of up to ten assistants, although as a volunteer noted their was a high turnover because of personality clashed with Margaret which usually led to firings.

Visits to the house are as timed tours bookable beforehand.  The house is very small and so these are limited to just seven people at a time, and at 12:30, thanks to a couple of cancellations that was just myself and a couple from Sheffield (were we asked for our place of origin a few times by the volunteers perhaps so that they could gage our local knowledge and adjust their explanations accordingly).  The volunteers stand in various sections of the house and we were passed in between, from waiting rooms through studio, dark rooms to living quarters and all with a minimum of fuss offering something of an impression of what it must have been like for clients.

Hardman retired in 1965.  After a fall which left him unable to climb stairs in 1989, he was befriended by Peter Hagerty, who according to a volunteer was visiting the house one day and found social services "cleaning up the place" or bin bagging his negatives, photographs and various items little knowing of their historic value.  Having reached the legacy in time, Hagerty helped set up a trust to safeguard Hardman's life's work but the house was a much larger undertaking and so it was gifted to the National Trust in 2002 and they went about cataloguing the contents and deciding how best to present them to the public.

Not much has changed since my original visit, the approach by the Trust for this property being to preserve how the house would have been during the peak of the photographer's career in the 40s and 50s.  Each room still retains a particular smell from photographic paper, chemicals, dust or just age.  The furniture and appliance are all from living memory, with a kitchen which looks like my Gran's house as late as the early 80s.  Once again I made the observation to a guide that he didn't hang photographs in his own quarters, preferring the work of local painters like Henry Carr.  Working in dark rooms until after midnight on touching up and developing photographs clearly meant he needed a break.

There's plenty of clutter.  It's not clear how much of this is due to the Trust's intervention or Chambre Hardman's own lifestyle, but every surface in the areas which wouldn't be seen by the public are covered in boxes and tins and papers and cups, lots and lots of cups.  He and his wife hoarded egg boxes, not the supermarket kind, but the rectangular boxes within which the eggs were delivered by post, the service being efficient enough for that to be best practice then.  In the basement too are giant chests filled with photographic paper which originated during the second world war and still have request labels requiring for them to be returned should they be unused.  The remains of the Anderson shelter are still outside.  He didn't throw much away.

That means it's not really a place you want to linger in much and the tour period is probably ample.  I was particularly fascinated by the photography process.  Due to waiting times, a photography session usually too up to ninety minutes (although the assistants were encouraged to flat out lie to potential clients about the duration depending on who they were, high end businessmen entering expecting a half hour appointment) and just eight shots would be taken with five to ten second exposures (on the assumption that one would be salvageable if most of them were ruined by some kind of movement fro the sitter).  Margaret was apparently never happy with the result, sometimes asking assistants to reprint shots on the days clients were due to picking them, often while they were in the building.

The whole visit took about two hours but didn't ever feel like it.  If you are local I'd very much recommend it, even as a way of seeing a recent social history writ large not unlike the viewing Chambre Hardman's own photographs.  Within one of the display cabinets there's a shot of the grounds outside St Luke's Church pointing towards the top of Bold Street on a sunny day taken during the mid-fifties.  Having only ever thought of the building as a war memorial, I was surprised to see it being treated in this way, the grass filled with sunbathers and people having fun something you wouldn't necessarily expect to see in the grounds of a church.  That's the power of this kind of photography, making the familiar, unfamiliar.

Gherkin - a universal language for accountable bots? by Richard Pope

You can’t view source in Google Now.

Software agents of one sort or another (bots, digital assistants, news feed algorithms) seem set to make more and more decisions for us.

How will we know how they are reaching their decisions? How will we know when a decision based on a something that aligns with our best interests vs the company who provide the software?

Will some critical bots need to become subject to auditing and regulation? (OFBOT anyone?). If the public sector starts building digital assistants into its services, how would a parliamentary committee ever understand what it does?

I watched the live feed of Bot Summit 2016 the other day - Martin O’Leary talked about various ways to make bots more understandable to users: expose the artifice; be explicit, not implicit. He pointed at the blogpost that goes alongside the Sorting Hat bot that explains in plain English how it works as an example of exposing the artifice of the bot.

Having a human readable explanation alongside a bit of software, in an agreed format, could help users understand the software they use and help regulators audit.

I’ve written before about the possibility of regulatory bodies doing something similar when they publish their data using the Gherkin language (aka Cucumber). I’ve also built a proof of concept building a digital assistant that runs on gherkin syntax input but a user.

What if all the makers of digital assistants and bots - regardless of how they are written, or if they are open or closed source - started publishing a description of how the software works in Gherkin?

GIVEN a user has an account
    WHEN a story is liked by 5 or more of their friends
    THEN it is recommended to them


WHEN a user is outside 
    AND more than 1 km from home
THEN display nearby bus stops


WHEN a user asks “what should I have for dinner”
THEN reply with a random recipe

Climate Change and Flooding on the East Coast by Albert Wenger

Living in Manhattan and having experienced the storm tide during Hurricane Sandy, I have been reading up on the what climate change is doing to the sea level. Sea levels in the 20th century rose faster than in the 27 (!) centuries before that. A new paper is now suggesting that the rise in the 21st century could wind up being 3 feet. That would be enough to put water on a our doorstep during every high tide and of course devastating for many low lying islands around the world. Sadly, the latter doesn’t seem to move politics in the United States much but change on the East Coast will.

As it turns out those may be even more dramatic. The reason is that at present the Gulf Stream removes a lot of water that would otherwise pile up here. As a sailor I know that tides and ocean currents are powerful but even I was blown away by how strong the Gulf Stream is. According to some models it reduces the water level on the East Coast by as much as 3 feet relative to stationary. At first you might think that’s good news because the Gulf Stream is protecting us by keeping water away. But here comes the problem: meltwater run off from Greenland is slowing down the Gulf Stream which means that water is suddenly backing up on the US East Coast.

How bad is this effect? The answer from this must-read blog post on the coming “Frankentides” is pretty terrifying.

Over the past few weeks, a freak series of high tides inundated large sections of the U.S. East Coast. In Charleston, South Carolina, on October 27, a high tide peaked at 8.67 feet above mean low water. That’s the highest tide for Charleston since Hurricane Hugo roared ashore in 1989. But in this case, there was no category 4 hurricane. Just a ridiculous amount of water flooding in from the ocean. In Savannah, Georgia tides ran 10.43 feet above mean low water on the same day. Again, no storm, just a rising ocean flooding out roadways and inundating homes and neighborhoods. Only a couple of days later, on October 29th, large sections of Boston Harbor flooded under perfectly blue skies.

What does this mean? The city of New York (and other cities on the East Coast) are woefully under prepared for what is happening. The combination of a high tide with a storm surge (as happened during Sandy) will cause flooding beyond anything we have seen.

Maybe that will finally be the wake up call everyone needs on climate change. Of course by then we will be reduced to massively invasive responses, including various geo engineering approaches.


A comment suggested that there was no evidence of an acceleration in the rise of the ocean level. It pointed to a blog post which in turn led me to the super interesting Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level, which allowed me to put together the following two pictures.

First here is the rate of rise for the 34 year period from 1940 to 1974

And now here is the rate of rise for the 34 years from 1980 to 2014

This clearly shows a significant acceleration on the East Coast in line with a slowing down of the Gulf Stream.

LPSC 2016: The Moon Keeps on Giving by The Planetary Society

There was no shortage of interesting lunar science talks at last month’s Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. Dr. Ryan Clegg-Watkins highlights some of the interesting results for us.

April 14, 2016

5 Magical Beasts And How To Replace Them With A Shell Script by Charlie Stross

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Guest post by filmmaker, game designer, comics author, and person who should really take a holiday some time Hugh Hancock

As an author of fictions about demonology that goes horribly wrong and the avoidance and escape of previously-bound supernatural guardians, I'm thrilled, fascinated and somewhat disturbed to learn that we're on the edge of an age of things that look a lot like supernatural servants.

Rather than apps, the smart money is now on bots - intelligent servants called and dismissed with specific incantations, capable of granting your heart's desire (assuming that desire is for an artisanal pizza or an Uber).

I went over this briefly on Tuesday, in which I concluded that it's entirely possible we'll soon be able to summon a succubus - in the "perfect inhuman lover" sense, not the "explanation for brief sleep paralysis" sense - into our PCs.

(Fun side note: it turns out Ashley Madison was already using techo-succubi extensively in its affair-enabling business.)

And that led me to thinking. What other roles have humans traditionally attempted to summon, bind, control or conquer supernatural servants for? And to what extent have we managed to replace those with technology?

Let us wander off into occult history and figure out what other mystical creatures we're cohabiting with these days, or will be soon...

House Fairie, Brownie, etc

We'll start in Charlie's and my home, Scotland, where one of the most mundane and obviously useful of magical servitors originates - the brownie.

Not to be confused with the delicious baked good, the Brownie was a small faerie from the classic surprisingly un-grand-and-threatening school of British faeriedom, which would help out around the house in exchange for the owners keeping up a certain set - and often rather tricky - series of rules, from giving the little critter food to avoiding thanking it for its work.

They're fairly clearly the inspiration for Harry Potter's House Elves, although the latter are considerably more user-friendly.

Assuming you kept up those rules, Brownies would clean, churn butter, and perform other useful, mundane tasks.

Do we have a technological equivalent? We have several.

As the past owner of a Roomba, the description immediately sounds very familiar. It trundles around the house at night performing mundane tasks. It has a number of specific and rather irritating requirements (mostly to do with cables and the lack thereof) that need to be adhered to or it'll refuse to cooperate. It initially looks like a major boon, but after experience with its services, one tends to find they're more hassle than just doing the darn job yourself. And it's more than a little capricious.

(The Roomba, incidentally, was based on a robot designed for picking up cluster bomblets from battlegrounds. I assume there were less cables to navigate there.)

Beyond that, home automation and what can euphemistically be called the "J.A.R.V.I.S. project" is obviously in full flow right now.

  • Mark Zuckerberg has decided to create himself an automated butler as his 20% project for the year.

  • One of the hot tech gadgets of the year is nothing more than a very sophisticated, automatable lightbulb.

  • Google's Nest is leading the home-automation pack right now with little mini-servitors that do all kinds of things, although apparently it does many of them badly.

  • And one of the hottest applications for the Raspberry Pi is as a home-automation center. Given previous experience with early-stage open-source projects, that should fit the description of the brownie perfectly. Potentially very helpful? Check. Finicky, awkward, and prone to unpredictable refusal to do its job? Check. Requires unexpectedly massive investment in propitiating its demands? Check.

Angels, Ayami, and Tutelary Spirits

John Dee, besides being the original 007 and the likely inspiration for Shakespeare's Prospero, is credited as the originator of Enochian, which he claimed was the language of the angels. Together with Edward Kelley, he claimed to use that language to summon and converse with angels.

Given that anyone reading this blog is likely to be pretty familiar with the concept of using strange languages to communicate with alien entities (including the darkest and most occult of communication methods, the Facebook API), how close are we to a technological equivalent for Dee's angels?

Well, it turns out that the first and most important function of talking to angels with Enochian is to, erm, learn Enochian. In fact, this is a theme that runs throughout real-world occultism: one of the main reasons you learn magic to summon a magical creature is to learn more magic from it. That's partially due to the fact that real-world occultism tends to be much closer to mysticism, religion, and spiritual practise than it is to Magic Missile into the darkness, and partially because hell, where else are you getting this otherworldly info from?

(We'll get on to Hell in a moment.)

It goes well beyond medieval Western occultism - shamanistic traditions have the ayami, the tutelary spirit or spirit-spouse. Ancient Greek tradition had the daimonion. Tutelary deities appear in Korean, Native American, and many other religions. In Christianity, at least according to some interpretations, the Holy Ghost is amongst other things a tutelary aspect of the deity.

Likewise, it turns out that one of the things that technology and coding are really great at is teaching you more technology and coding. My personal favourite of the advanced-learning bunch is Codeacademy, which quite literally uses code to teach you to code, rather successfully so. But the world of online learning in general is clearly huge, extremely successful, and massively addictive.

Some "Super-MOOCers" (the term for people who take a lot of online courses) have taken 50, 100 or more of these relatively in-depth courses, often on very advanced subjects. And speaking to some of them at the Coursera conference a few weeks ago, it's clear that the sudden availability of knowledge from the Internet is a boon they'd cheerfully have negotiated with supernatural entities for. "Freedom" and "Joy" are concepts that come up a lot when talking to serious learners about their sudden access to world-leading experts through the Internet.

Interestingly, there's another mystical summoned creature that fits rather well here: the homunculus. After all, what are MOOCs doing but creating a small version of the magus (or professor) you wish to consult, and thus enabling the magus themselves to be in many more places at once, using their knowledge to do many more things?


The demon is the Swiss Army Knife of Western occultism.

It's fairly clear, for example, that the author of the Ars Goetia in the Lesser Key Of Solomon is a spiritual ancestor of the RPG community. If he or she had been born a few centuries later, she'd be right alongside Our Gracious Host in the credits for the Fiend Folio. The Ars Goetia comprises in large part a listing of the 72 demons it allows the user to summon, ordered by noble rank, cardinal direction, and useful skills.

  • Duke Agares "teaches languages, stops and retrieves runaway persons, causes earthquakes, and grants noble titles", according to his Wikipedia entry.
  • Duke Valefar, by contrast, "is in charge of a good relationship among thieves". He also commands ten legions of demons, each of which presumably have their own unique skillset.
  • Great President Buer, aside from sounding like the recently-ascended leader of a less-stable South American nation, "teaches natural and moral philosophy, logic, and the virtues of all herbs and plants, and is also capable of healing all infirmities (especially of men) and bestows good familiars".

Each entry contains seals and other diagrams for summoning and communicating with whichever entity suits your desires at the time.

Reading through the grimoire, it reminds me of nothing so much as a supernatural version of Fiverr, the enormously successful service for getting a massive variety of tasks done for, well, a fiver. (Five dollars, that is. £3.74 in the UK last time I checked).

Much like demonology, Fiverr comes with plenty of existential risks.

Whilst you'll probably be OK if you just summon the Demon Of Podcast Transcription, barring a few hilarious misspellings or the chance that their college schedule gets busy and they vanish off the face of the earth, other rituals are considerably more advanced. Be cautious about summoning the Duke of Logo Creation, lest it tempt you unawares into the fourth circle of Hell where the copyright lawyers wait for the unwary.

And, dear reader, we must entreat you most sincerely to consider carefully whether your skill, guile and spiritual advancement is sufficient to summon the Great President Of Search Engine Optimisation, for the deepest pits of Hell, crafted for you by Google's anti-spam team, await those who treat with such an entity without due care and spiritual purity.


And here we loop right back round to where we started: AI and chatbots.

It was the ultimate goal of many schools of occultism to create life. In Muslim alchemy, it was called Takwin. In modern literature, Frankenstein is obviously a story of abiogenesis, and not only does the main character explicitly reference alchemy as his inspiration but it's partially credited for sparking the Victorian craze for occultism. Both the Golem and the Homunculus are different traditions' alchemical paths to abiogenesis, in both cases partially as a way of getting closer to the Divine by imitating its power.

(All of this is somewhat complicated by alchemists' tendency to write about their Art in a way that was, essentially, trolling the unworthy. Jabir ibn Hayyan, for example, who wrote about Takwin extensively, also wrote that part of the purpose of his writings was to "baffle and lead into error everyone except those whom God loves and provides for". Other alchemists followed this tradition, meaning that it's hard to tell exactly where they were aiming, and whether the entire line of reasoning can be summed up as "trololololololololol".)

And abiogenesis has also been the fascinated object of a great deal of AI research. Sure, in recent times we might have started to become excited by its power to create a tireless servant who can schedule meetings, manage your Twitter account, spam forums, or just order you a pizza, but the historical context is driven by the same goal as the alchemists - create artificial life. Or more accurately, to create an artificial human.

Will we get there? Is it even a good idea? One of the talks at a recent chatbot convention in London was entitled "Don't Be Human" . Meanwhile, possibly the largest test of an intended-to-be-humanlike - and friendlike - bot is going on via the Chinese chat service WeChat.

And that's a clue to the problem that chatbots are trying to solve, and the magical beast that we can't yet manage to recreate.


It's easy to mistake the witch's familiar as a supernatural pet. And we can already do those. From Tamagotchi to Aibo, mechanical pets more or less work.

The latest and most spectacular example of that success is in Valve's VR experiment "The Lab", which features a robot dog. It's a massive success. One friend of mine recently spent 20 minutes solid playing with the dog, ignoring all the more conventionally game-like options on offer to throw a virtual stick and rub a virtual belly.

But familiars are more than that. In myth and occult history, they're non-human companions, intelligent and aware. Sometimes they're presented as demons summoned to aid the witch in her dark magic - again, intelligent and aware companions - usually by sources that are, shall we say, less than friendly to the occult persuasion.

And that's where a lot of the chatbot research is going. To the point where we can summon an artificial friend.

That's a very noble goal. Loneliness is a massive problem in the world, and it's extremely harmful to both happiness and health - its effects on mortality rate are startling.

Will we get there? Maybe. The chatbot I mention above is specifically of interest here because it's essentially designed as a virtual friend. Eliza, the most famous chatbot, was designed to emulate a virtual therapist - not the same thing, but similar.

And the person who conquers this problem - who manages to summon the final spirit - will become incredibly powerful and wealthy. So the race is on.

What do you think? Any summoned servitors I missed? Do you think the "virtual friend" will become a reality?

Topless of the Pops. by Feeling Listless

Music The All Saints have given a typically brilliant interview for the BBC in which they talk about how they had to deal with sexism in the industry offering a specific example of something which happened on Top of the Pops:

The sexism spilled over into their TV appearances, and the band shudder as they recall a traumatic Top of the Pops taping.

"They were filming images of us to use as a backdrop," says Shaznay, "and they wanted us to take our tops off."

The producers, they explain, wanted to shoot the band from the shoulders up, giving the impression they were performing in the nude.

"The vision was that we looked naked and we didn't want that vision," adds Natalie. "But because it was such a huge show, we were told 'if you don't do it, you don't get to go on the show,'" says Melanie.

"The girl that worked with us was in tears because she was trying to fight our corner," Natalie continues. "We ended up having to compromise with the producers. We dropped our tops to here [indicating her armpits] so it would look like we were topless."

"We did it but we were stroppy about it," says Nicole. "Again, we got labelled as being difficult."
The BBC being the BBC have asked the BBC for a quote:
A BBC spokesman said: "We're not able to comment on something that is alleged to have happened nearly 20 years ago, but today we seek to ensure that everyone working at the BBC does so in an environment in which they are comfortable."
Quite right. Here's the clip:

I'd forgotten Melanie used to wear glasses.  You can see what All Saints mean, a few straps but for some reason, yes, bare shoulders all.

We Need to Be Ready for the Next Revolution by The Leveller

“To even stand still we have to move very fast.”

The frenetic, fast pace of the election cycle seems almost to be never ending here in Scotland. With a referendum, UK General Election and Scottish Parliamentary Election all falling within 20 months of each other it’s as if the campaigning never stops.

The Bank of England predicts machines may replace up to 50% of jobs in the UK and USA

Likewise the same questions always seem to be asked: education, tax, foreign policy, health, pensions, the case for or against austerity. The United States seems almost a mirror image, if a more surreal one, with the answers to these questions never varying by any great degree on either side of the Pond. Yet no politician or major media outlet seem to dare mention what could be the most important societal shift since the Industrial Revolution: a technological revolution that will impact how we work and live together with ramifications that we cannot possibly conceive yet.

For the last 50 years our lives have continually adapted and improved with the advances of technology and automation. During the postwar years this advancement was mutually beneficial to labor and employer. The development of machinery led to higher production, which led to an increase in wages. Yet since shortly before the turn of the century, the advancement of technology has only helped to increase capital, while wages in real terms have fallen. There is now a very clear and present danger that automation and robotics will develop at such a rate that the Bank of England predicts machines may replace up to 50% of jobs in the UK and United States.[1]

This will only work for us if there are better, higher paid jobs and occupations provided

In The Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford explains why the threat to human labor by technology has suddenly become such a real and daunting prospect. Citing Moore’s Law, which states that over the history of computing hardware the level of advancement has doubled every two years. Which meant that the rate of advancement initially was slow, but as we have progressed over time, the more advanced computer hardware has become – and so the quicker the next breakthrough inevitably is.

To give an example take 1 pence and double it every day for 30 days. By the end of the first week your total would only be £1.28, at the halfway point your total would be £327.68 but by Day 30 your penny would have accumulated to over £10 million.  This rapid development has led to the American Association for the Advancement of Science to report that:

“ …intelligent and semi-intelligent autonomous systems — such as self-driving cars and autonomous drones — ‘will march into our society’ in the next two to three years, with driving expected to be fully automated in 25 years.”[2]

Those who have been paying attention a while have seen that this machinery is already coming to life. Go into most supermarkets and you’ll find self service checkouts where cashiers used to be, Fast food restaurants like McDonald’s now employ touch screen order boards in many of their establishments. Farm work (in particular fruit picking) is now increasingly done by robots, thanks to new visual perception software. Many economists and politicians have written this off as no issue; after all, low skilled, low waged service jobs such as these are thought of as unwanted, allowing workers to retrain and to seek better opportunities. But this only works if there are better, higher paid jobs provided.

In 2013 the Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that in 1998 workers in America put in around 194 billion hours of labor. 15 years later the growth of output had increased by 42%, meaning that the total amount of labor required for this was…. 194 billion hours. This demonstrates that as thousands of new American businesses had developed in that time, and the population increased by 40 million in that time, the human labor the economy required ultimately stayed at the same level. As technology developed, less labor was required to achieve the same growth output.

The recent financial meltdown led to businesses having to ‘skeletonize’ their workforce just to stay afloat

In addition to this, the job market is becoming crowded. With life expectancy growing, retirement ages rising and a worldwide population expected to reach 9 billion in coming decades means that thousands of new jobs need to be continually developed just to cope with the current labor market. This is what JFK meant in 1963 when he said “to even stand still we have to move very fast.” In addition to this, the recent financial meltdown led to businesses having to ‘skeletonize’ their workforce just to stay afloat. During this time they discovered that advanced technology can often do the job faster and more efficiently than humans, and so despite business growth we will not see a return to previous hiring levels.

As a socialist it’s often difficult not to feel anger at this, but from a business perspective, if given the choice would you hire a human who can: only work 8 hours a day, need days off and vacations, may call in sick, may not perform to consistent level every day, would need an office, car parking space, HR department, management? Or an automated machine that can work 24 hours a day if necessary to a consistent output?

If 50% of the population are without jobs, who will buy the products that are being made by this new technology?

Ford describes the current labor market as a jobs pyramid, which reflects why half of UK graduates are unable to find anything other than what would be described as ‘non-graduate work.’ This has led to the growing inequality in our society as 95% of total income gains between 2009 -2012 went to the top 1%. The question we all need to therefore ask is: even if automation and robotics only take up the low skilled, low paid jobs (though this is not really the case as intelligent algorithm technology is now beginning to threaten high skilled jobs) how will we be able to produce enough jobs to keep an ever growing population working? If 50% of the population are now without jobs, who will buy the products that are being produced by this new technology?

Not only that but a society based around those who have jobs or don’t have jobs is far more likely to exacerbate inequality, allowing the richest to maintain control and have less pressure exerted on them to give workers progressive radical policies.

Corbyn and Sanders’ plans to increase vocational training and create employment through infrastructure are positive steps, but these measures will only provide a short term relief against an oncoming technological tide

Economists are already beginning to  develop ideas towards this new reality, and it is vital that socialists and the wider left begin to recognize the imminent threat that this poses to our current models of employment and economic policy. Both long term and short term plans must be set out. Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders’ plans to increase vocational training and create employment through infrastructure are positive steps, but these measures will only provide a short term relief against an oncoming technological tide.

Some more conservative economists have floated the idea of a mutual fund. At first glance this makes sense: it will have been the working and middle class taxpayers’ money which has contributed to the research and development of technology and as such a mutual fund in which we all share the capital seems ostensibly reasonable. However from a business standpoint this would result in very few people daring to risk what they have as it’s unlikely there would be a safety net to fall back on. Banks would be unlikely to invest in new ventures if the concept of risk is virtually wiped out. From a socialist perspective the notion that those – and there will be some – who take a risk with their capital would have to face an incredibly bleak future should it fail, as any sort of safety net would only encourage riskier investment. More worrying would be the acceptance that labor is now worthless and your net worth is purely what you own.

A basic income of £10,000 is ostensibly double the current welfare budget, but it would allow the economy to be further stimulated, increasing purchasing power and allowing income and tax revenue to be replenished

It seems the most attractive and logistical proposal is to introduce a basic income: an income given to all on an individual basis without means testing or condition. Through this setup, if done properly, a common but dramatically restructured safety net would allow us to alleviate poverty, end extreme poverty and homelessness, and eradicate income inequality.

Giving every UK resident over the age of 16 an annual £10,000 would cost the Government £400 billion upfront. This is double the current welfare budget of £200 billion. However, a basic income would allow the economy to be further stimulated, increasing purchasing power and allowing income to be replenished. It would also provide greater tax receipts for the treasury as someone earning £8,000 a year would not be paying tax, but with the basic income their pay would total £18,000 a year and be liable for tax on around £7000 currently. Basic income would still provide the citizen with a significant improvement in living standards (and higher tax bands could still be created). Finally, administrative costs from scrapping Universal Credit (Welfare) and moving to a universal basic income would also diminish, as means testing alone requires an enormous government bureaucracy to maintain.

We have to accept that we could see an increase in those who choose to live off their basic income alone

In fact there is a strong argument for a basic income right now, despite the short term increase in social security spending. Within the current model, social security spending would sky rocket anyway when 50% of the employment is taken over by automation and robotics.

Unfortunately the current state of our politics means that a consensus on this seems a long way off. To accept a basic income, the Right would have to get over their fixation of benefit scroungers and the Left would have to acknowledge that there is more to life than work. While studies have shown basic incomes provide incentives for individuals and communities to invest and initiate new ventures, we have to accept that we may even see an increase in those who choose to live off their basic income alone for whatever reason. This can be argued is a positive for labor as those who choose to opt out are more likely to be less productive than those who choose to work. Others may want one or both parents to stay at home with their children. Regardless those who choose not to seek further employment still have a role to play as consumers within the society. They will still need to buy food, clothes, electronics, pay rent/mortgages and this will maintain the demand that mass unemployment at the expense of technology could not.

There are of course immense logistical questions surrounding the implementation of basic income – immigration, initial start ups and incentives to continue to work which will need to be thought through and discussed. This is why it is so vital for socialists and the wider left to begin to take the lead on this. It should not, however, be seen as an unworkable ideal, rather a policy whose time is hasn’t yet come.

It is time now for this discussion to be given the importance that it deserves. While politicians dance around with short-sighted squabbles about tax loopholes, a radical shift is fast approaching that they are either too blind too see or too concerned with the next opinion poll to care about. Short and long term plans must now begin to be put in place to ensure that as the technological revolution continues at an advancing pace we are ready for it. That we have invested in education, developing infrastructure, and most importantly developing an affordable safety net for those who no longer find their labor of worth, for a society which has and will continue to get more unequal, with more extreme poverty and despair; and for an economy currently incapable of maintaining an equilibrium of production and consumerism.

If we don’t begin to move to address this now, I fear it may be too late to even stand still.



Image: Nesster



The post We Need to Be Ready for the Next Revolution appeared first on The Leveller.

Skywings article about Loser Site September 2015 by Goatchurch

Thought I’d scan and upload my article about flying in Austria for folks to download:

JGTskywingsLoser.PDF (7Mb)

Individual pages:




Does Presidential Intervention Undermine Consensus for NASA? by The Planetary Society

Presidents induce polarization on topics they choose to promote. So is the best way for a President to promote consensus in NASA to speak quietly?

Curiosity update, sols 1250-1310: Across the Naukluft Plateau by The Planetary Society

Curiosity has driven onward from Namib dune across a highstanding unit of rock called the Naukluft Plateau. Despite some frustrating sols lost to a short circuit in the RTG and DSN troubles, the rover has made progress, and performed lots of 3D imaging of weirdly wind-eroded rocks.

Full-circle ceremony sends last shuttle tank to sea by The Planetary Society

The last unflown space shuttle fuel tank is underway to California, following a full-circle ceremony in view of hardware built for the shuttle's heavy lift successor, the Space Launch System.

April 13, 2016

"were firmly told that the reconstruction must be exceptionally basic" by Feeling Listless

TV A blast from the past. The Doctor Who Restoration Team website has been updated with material about the final set of dvd releases including Web of Fear, Enemy of the World and The Underwater Menace. The explanation for why the final release's "recons" were of such basic quality is pleasingly honest from their end:

"Rather than animate the missing episodes, the instruction that came to us via our commissioning editor was that they were to be presented as an inexplicably basic telesnap and off-air soundtrack reconstruction. Although we offered to prepare reconstructions to the standard of that featured on The Web of Fear for no extra cost, we were firmly told that the reconstruction must be exceptionally basic - no recreated opening titles or credits, no composite shots, no moves to add life to the storytelling, and all the telesnaps had to be presented one after another in the order they were shot and without repetition. A very odd commercial decision which were are at a loss to understand."
Well yes, indeed, and we're yet to actually have an explanation about that. If the team offered to do the work at a higher standard for free because of a love of the franchise, why would they be told not to bother?

The results are horrible.  There's a moment in the last episode where over four minutes of action play out without any sense of what's going on across a telesnap which doesn't really show what's happening.

About the only reason I can think of is if they have in mind some kind of sales correlation in which a perfectly watchable recon negates the need for someone to buy the audio version with narration but they still feel the need to put something on the dvd.  Sigh.

It’s not about the technology! (Apart from when it is). by Richard Pope

“Digital/transformation/business is not about technology it's about design / strategy / culture” is a recurring meme. It can be a comforting thing to cling on to, and it’s probably true a lot of the time, but is also not true in some important respects.

Technology does matter. Good digital / design / business / transformation / culture / strategy requires an understanding of the materials.

Open Streetmap came into existence 10 years ago in part because of affordable consumer GPS units and open-source GIS software; bespoke on-demand printing services like because of high-quality digital printers; many of the ‘web 2.0’ services became possible because of Ajax.

Who knows what Web RTC and other decentralised technologies are about to do to how we use the web and the sorts of things that could be designed to meet user needs? Or the quiet revolution in the capabilities of mobile web browsers? Or Yubikey and other new password technologies?

If you don’t understand the materials you are working with, you can’t build the right thing, even if you go about it in the right way. You can’t build what you can’t think of in the first place.

Sometimes the right question to ask is ‘could we meet our user needs better using this new technology?’.

The same thing applies to system level design.

Novel uses of human readable software tests, ‘reproducible builds’ and audited software supply chains could fundamentally change how regulatory bodies operate.

SOCITIM trying to improve and standardise the design of local authority websites and services without solving the underlying problem of how code and data get shared between hundreds of organisations (and an understanding of the technology available to do that). Users of local authority digital services are stuck with bad services, in part, because that underlying problem has not been solved. Design standards without an understanding of the current state of technology are less potent than they could be.

So what’s the solution?

For one, digital leaders need to spend more time understanding the current state of technology, and make sure they have technologists and developers in their organisations making decisions, not just building things. (How many of the people at board or senior management level in your organisation would count themselves as technologists?)

The move from wireframing and mockups to ‘designing in-browser’ has changed the way things get designed for the web, but I think it is time to go further. The dominance of mobiles and tablets mean teams should be designing and developing directly, with multiple devices on their desks and in their demos. Commoditised services like Heroku, Gocardless and Twilio, and mature web frameworks mean it is possible to get real products, or multiple variations of a service, into the hands of real users in the time it used to take to build a prototype or mockup.

Finally, design should be a genuinely multidisciplinary task, something that anyone can do, not something that is ever more specialised. I’d go further and say that dedicated design teams (and probably dev teams in many circumstances) should not exist. But that is probably a future blog post.

Opposition surge comet by The Planetary Society

Today, the Rosetta OSIRIS team's Image of the Day is this highly unusual view of the comet with the Sun very nearly behind the spacecraft.

Defining the Missions for the Ocean Worlds by The Planetary Society

At a recent meeting of an advisory group for NASA, the Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS), Jim Green, the head of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, and Barry Goldstein from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, provided updates on plans to explore our solar system's ocean worlds.

April 12, 2016

Findable. by Feeling Listless

Film Oh hello, Findable.TV.

One of the inherent problems with subscribing to three different streaming services, Amazon Prime, Netflix and the Faustian pact with the Devil, is that if you want to see if a particular film is there you have search all three sites separately and if it's not there then head off into the forest of pay services hoping for the best.

Oh hello Findable.TV, which searches all the services together then tells you where something is available and for how much. Not just subscription services, but the catch-up apps for terrestrial television and all of the rental and purchase options.

If only I'd had this at my disposable when I was searching for source for the items on the 1001 Films list.

It's not perfect. Brooklyn isn't listed yet despite being available on multiple services. Throwing my favourite five at it, Findable also doesn't notice that The Seventh Seal is available for rent at Amazon but was able to tell me that In The Bleak Midwinter is streamable from the ashes of BlinkBox.

But yes, wow [via].

Markov Chain Dirty To Me by Charlie Stross

Right now, people are having sex with a computer.

I don't mean that they're having sex with a RealDoll or similar—although I'm sure they are.

I mean that there are people out there, right now, who are shagging a state machine.

Welcome to the world of computer-assisted self-bondage (LINK IS VERY VERY NSFW!). Using Arduinos, Heath Robinson-esque contraptions involving keys held in CD trays, and Bluetooth-enabled electrostim machines, men and women have programmed their own doms or dommes. A truly merciless dominant who will randomly please or hurt, and there's nothing the user can do about it.

(There's a Terminator misquote here that I'm desperately trying not to make.)

Meanwhile, there are dozens of other people who are attempting to chat up a slightly different state machine.

Advertisers on porn sites around the world have figured out that users are, shall we say, somewhat preoccupied, and there are a limited number of advertising techniques that will work. One of the most common ones is a "fake chat" ad—an attractive woman propositioning the user with the promise of, at least, some hot Facebook or Snapchat messages.

Some of the more advanced ads actually take the user to a landing page where a very, very crude script will respond to them.

This has been happening for ages, of course. So why am I talking about it now?

Because tech developments in other areas are about to turn the whole "sex with your PC" deal from "crude and somewhat rubbish" to "looks like the AIs just took a really unexpected job away".

Soon you may well be able to summon a succubus. Through your PC.

Rise Of The Chatbots

Summoned servitors are about to make the mother of all comebacks.

I'm rather enthusiastic about that on a fictional level. Indeed, the film I just released, DANGEROUS TREASURES, came very close to being called BOUND THINGS instead—it's a story of a couple of geeks who follow clues on a deepweb occult forum which lead them to have a lengthy and bloody interaction with the bound guardian of the treasure they're robbing. And the binding and summoning of guardians is key to the entire thing (hopefully not spoiling it too much!).

(Amusingly for the topic of this post, the reason we didn't call it BOUND THINGS is that it sounded rather too porny.)

Accidentally, I seem to have hit something of a zeitgeist with this one. Because in Silicon Valley, I'm reliably informed, the Wave Of The Future is exactly this: summoned, intelligent servants which you can control if you know their True Name.

Forget apps. The new line is "there's a bot for that".

Rise Of The Chatbots

Here's a good primer for the whole Chatbot Revolution.

In short:

  • Messaging apps got huge.
  • Chatbots, which have been around for ages, benefit a lot from the improvements in AI recently.
  • It's possible to plug A into B comparatively easily.
  • And that enables a very natural interaction where you simply message the pizzabot, say, and it sends you a pizza.
  • Replace "pizza" with "Uber", "Grocery", "Plane Ticket" or "Escort" as appropriate.

There's no need to install an app and grant it permission to do everything from track your location to access your selfie collection. There's no need to bash your way (pun not intended) through a confusing new interface. Just message and It Is Done.

This is a very similar idea to the old "AI agent" concept that has been knocking around for a decade or more, but this time the ecosystem's right. We have natural language processing sophisticated enough to comprehend most messages. We have messaging systems that everyone uses, with APIs that allow bots to access them. And we're sick up to the back teeth of apps.

By now you're probably thinking "And we've got learning bots too!". You're right. And this is where we go back to the "fucking a CPU" thing.

We've already seen Microsoft unveil Tay, their twitter bot. A lot of people have written about its rapid transformation into a shitposting racist as an amusing side feature, or a huge and terrifying weakness. But they have that the wrong way around.

Microsoft Tay, and it's /pol/ification, is where the Chatbot Revolution really begins.

Markov Chain Dirty To Me

So let's go back to our porn surfer chatting up a state machine, and our self-bondage enthusiast tied to a Bluetooth vibrator.

And now let's add a learning bot into both those situations.

One of the most successful techniques in current AI research - used by Google's DeepMind amongst others - is called "Regret-based learning". Essentially, the bot is given a goal, and gets upset when it doesn't achieve it. Thus, it rapidly learns to optimise its approach to achieve that goal.

Sex, in a myriad of forms, is an excellent candidate for a regret-based AI. For the advertisers, the win condition is simple: the user clicks through to whatever they're advertising and purchases, signs up, or whatever.

For the bondage enthusiasts, it's orgasm and sexual arousal - both of which can be measured if said user doesn't mind strapping some electronics to their genitals.

There's already an active project - with talk of crowdfunding - aiming to link masturbation machines to a machine-learning program via a variety of techniques for spotting imminent orgasm. (I'll not link to that particular piece of research, but you can probably find it with a bit of Googling.)

And in both cases, there's enormous demand, and absolutely no reason a bot can't be trained up by exposing it (pun, once again, not intended) to hundreds of thousands of users at the same time. Indeed, for a pure chat bot it would be tremendously cheap - a few hundred dollars - to buy access to a massive array of users for extremely rapid training thanks to the generally low value of porn site advertising space.

Even if the intention isn't to shill an adult dating site or similar, but to develop an effective AI replacement for a phone sex line, it's comparatively simple to add in conditions for regret-based learning. At the most obvious level, a simple Uber-style star rating would give the bot enough feedback to begin optimising.

I for one welcome our AI Dominatrixes

But could our sexbot actually ever get good enough to be convincing? I can't see why not.

Computer-generated dialogue has gotten pretty good, to the point that several chatbots have arguably passed the Turing Test. One of the criticisms of that chatbot was that it cast itself as a very particular role and personality in order to appear convincing - which is obviously something that is eminently doable for a fantasy chatbot too.

In addition, by its very nature sex texting tends to be somewhat inarticulate at points. From what I saw of Tay's output - Nazi propaganda aside - a similar level of quality would pass perfectly well in sexual chat.

Sure, a bot might not be able to construct sophisticated fantasies. But are those 100% necessary, or can it learn to please based on call and response?

2015 was the year that computers got better than humans at recognising images.

Could 2017 or 2018 be the year that computers get better than humans at dirty talk? Or, indeed, BDSM dominance?

There'll certainly be a lot of enthusiasm for the concept.

Pardon me. I'll be in my bunk.

What do you think? Could you see the oldest profession being on the AI chopping block? Would you ever talk dirty to a robot?

Attention Conservation Notice by Charlie Stross

Hi! Charlie here. I'm a bit burned-out and busy with real-world stuff right now, so for the next week, guest bloggers are standing by to keep you perplexed bamboozled entertained. Starting with an interesting essay on deep learning and chatbots by Hugh Hancock, later today ...

Hugh adds: The film I've just released is called DANGEROUS TREASURES. It's a geek action-horror-comedy about Lovecraftian horror, deepweb forum culture, and frantic Googling.

The tagline I'm using is " These geeks think of themselves as 2016's Indiana Jones. Too bad the thing they've awoken knew Cthulhu. Personally. "

My Book: World After Capital (Rough Draft) by Albert Wenger

After frequently mentioning in person and here on Continuations that I am working on a book, I am excited to announce that a first rough draft version is now ready! You can head over to World After Capital to read and comment.

What you will find there is still very much a rough draft but one I feel covers the essential arguments that I want to make. So far I have done one round of bug fixes to correct typos and other blatant mistakes. But a lot of work still remains to be done including finding a more uniform voice and adding missing references and data.

I want to thank everyone who has contributed over the years through comments on posts here and in person discussions. A big shoutout also to the in-depth feedback I have already received from early readers. I have yet to address much of what has been proposed but am planning to do so in future revisions.

I am using gitbook to write World After Capital and you can track the changes I am making on github. I retain final “commit rights” for changes and as such take responsibility for any and all errors.

There is also a separate FAQ which I will be updating periodically. If you want to, you can download a version in PDF, ePub or Mobi. The contents of the book will always be freely available at under a Creative Commons license.

I look forward to any and all feedback.

LPSC 2016: Differentiated meteorites provide a glimpse of the early solar system and planets by The Planetary Society

This year's Lunar and Planetary Science Conference included a session devoted to a group of rocks from space called differentiated meteorites, and their proposed parent bodies.

Last unflown space shuttle tank heads seaward for new mission by The Planetary Society

The last unflown space shuttle external fuel tank was loaded onto a barge at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility Sunday in New Orleans. It will ship to the California Science Center in Los Angeles to be joined with space shuttle Endeavour.

April 11, 2016

Anticipating change by Simon Wardley

So, you've managed to identify user needs, create a map, you have an understanding of what terms mean and a basic understanding of the strategy cycle including doctrine vs context specific play. Before we can get into the details, we need to more fully understand our environment and that means climate but at least with an understanding of landscape we can move onto the next step.

The journey so far


There are many common patterns that impact our context (as in our landscape) and knowing this helps you anticipate change. This is the common list of patterns which we will go through in posts one by one, each one I'll add a link to the post and a short description here.

In order, they are :-

Everything evolves

Characteristics change

No one size fits all

Efficiency enables innovation

Increased stability increases agility

Higher order systems create new sources of worth

Capital flows to new areas of value

No choice over evolution

Creative destruction

Success breeds inertia

Inertia increases the more successful the past model is

Inertia kills

Not everything is random

Economy has cycles

Two different forms of disruption

Competitor's actions will change the game

Most competitors have poor situational awareness

Change is not always linear

Shifts from product to utility tend to demonstrate a punctuated equilibrium


A war (point of industrialisation) causes organisations to evolve

Efficiency does not mean a reduced spend

Speed of developing higher order systems by re-combining lower order components accelerates with industrialisation of lower orders

Evolution to higher order systems results in increased energy consumption

Evolution of communication mechanisms can increase the speed of evolution

Patterns can be applied across contexts

Future differential value is inversely proportional to certainty. 

... when we get to this point, I'll write a post showing how you can use these patterns to anticipate change. After which we will be in a position to talk about universal doctrine before moving onto context specific gameplay. At the very end of this (rather long) journey, we will finally be able to have reasonable discussion on culture without all the usual hand waving that accompanies that topic.

If you're feeling that this is complex, that's because competition is, despite our attempts to dress it up in 2x2s. We've twenty seven common economic patterns, sixteen different forms of doctrine and around seventy different forms of gameplay (depending upon how much stamina I have to write this all) to go through. This isn't even the exhaustive list but ultimately this will be a journey into situational awareness not trying to cover up the complexity as simple.

I know this stuff off by heart, I live it and I use it at both national and international levels but then I've been doing this for a decade. It's always amazing to experience how much you can do to manipulate a market. I want to try and expose that to you all but we need to start somewhere, so climate it is.

Do remember, no model is ever right but some are temporarily useful. 

On user needs and listening to customers. by Simon Wardley

I've discussed a number of topics recently from the terms I use in mapping, to the importance of position and movement and the difference between context specific play and universal doctrine. Now, I'd like to turn my focus to one of the most important parts of mapping - the anchor.

A map contains a chain of needs described with the concept of movement (i.e. evolution) but the most important question of all is where does this chain of needs start from? To begin with, lets looks at that strategy cycle again but this time focus on purpose.

The Strategy Cycle

One thing to note is your purpose is not fixed but transient. It is altered by your actions along with the actions of competitors e.g. Nokia was a paper mill but at some point, someone decided it would become a plastics manufacturer. There is no such thing as "core" in business, it's just some things are more transient than others. The willingness to accept this, to identify and exploit new opportunities and abandon (or at least diminish) past focus is known as the Pivot. Ask Twitter (from the famous MP3 sharing site by Odeo) or Flickr (from the gaming company Ludicorp that failed to produce the game).

Secondly, your value chain (which I describe using maps) is not isolated but part of a sea of value chains. The outputs from your value chain maybe used as inputs into one or many other different value chains. Naturally, others outputs will be your inputs.

Hence a couple of things. Since your user need is normally the input into someone else's value chain then your user need is a component. This means it can be of any type (e.g. activity, practice, data or knowledge) or combination thereof. This also means it evolves as with all other components.

Those inputs can be to value chains of companies or end consumers (the public) or even your own staff. Therefore the position of pieces on the map will often change according to which user perspective you are looking at. In order to simplify I examine the customer of what we provide and then add onto the map the needs of other types of users. I also ask the question "Do they need us or do we need them?"

Hence, in Fotango, we needed engineering staff to provide the components of our services. Those engineers had their own needs (e.g. a positive working environment, good pay etc). As CEO, I had a duty to not only meet the needs of our customers but also the needs of our employees. 

For illustration, I've taken a very simple map, added engineering and one specific need. Yes, you can argue about the position of pieces but that's the point of a map - it exposes assumptions and enables collaboration & challenge.

Now, the thing of "a positive working environment" can be an entire map. In other words, components in high level maps can be decomposed into multiple components underneath. Therefore maps are recursive and high level maps are like an atlas of the world whereas a low level map can be viewed as the equivalent of a street map or a building map.

In some cases a component will simply hide complexity (i.e. there are many components underneath this), in other cases a single component can be an aggregate of many. In the following illustration then accounting system is an aggregate of many components.

So :-
  • what we consider "core" is transient.
  • the focus of the anchor is user need.
  • the user is primarily our customer (whether a company or public) that we are trying to serve the need of.
  • the needs evolve.
  • there are other users and needs which can be mapped (usually we need them).
  • the needs are components consisting of type.
  • maps have granularity and the concept is recursive.

Often we can find opportunities in not only unmet needs (things which should be provided but aren't) or in newly discovered needs (the uncharted space) but also within our value chains there are components that can be usefully provided to others but aren't. It should also be obvious that failing to meet the needs of your consumers when competitors do meet those needs is usually a bad idea.

But how do we work out those user needs? This is extremely tricky because we bring our own biases to the table. The first thing to do is to understand that you're talking about user needs not your needs i.e. you might need to make revenue and profit but that is NOT your user need. By meeting the needs of your consumers then you hope to make revenue and profit, not the other way around.

The best way I've found for determining user needs is to start by looking at the transactions an organisation makes with the outside world. This will tend to give you an idea of what it provides and what is important. The next step is to examine the customer journey when interacting with those transactions. By questioning this journey and talking with customers then you will often find what is really important e.g. the need to get from A to B plus the need for some social status from the thing.

You'll usually find pointless steps or unmet needs or unnecessary needs being catered for. It's really important however to distinguish between "What consumers say they want" and "What they need". This last part is a mix of data collection, art form, collaboration and discussion. I've yet to find a really good and consistent mechanism for breaking this out.

One mechanism I've found to be exceptionally useful, especially when dealing with corporations as customers, is to go and map out their landscape. In most cases I find companies have no idea what their user needs actually are and hence if you're a supplier to these companies then in discussions they are mainly talking about things they want and they think are necessary but with no real clue as to what is. You can often find entire new opportunities for business by mapping out their landscape if you're so inclined.

Discussion and data collection is a key part of this, so talk with your consumers, talk with experts in the field and try to refine the map from there.  However, here's the gotcha - in many cases they're all wrong! Gasp? What do you mean they're wrong! There are two important areas where invariably the consumers and the experts are usually wrong, they also happen to be two of most crucial for economic gameplay and survival. 

The first area is in stage transition e.g. when something shifts from custom built to product or more importantly from product to commodity (+utility). The problem is that the pre-existing installed base will have inertia to the change (more on the types of inertia here). Invariably they'll tell you they need a whole bunch of stuff they don't need because they're fixated on a legacy world of products. To see through this then you need to get to grips with co-evolution (more on this here) and realise that what they actually NEED is volume operations of good enough in the case of product to utility shifts. This is different from what they'll tell you. Be vary wary of the legacy mindset.

The shift from product to commodity (+utility) is an extremely large and profound change due to the number of value chains it can impact. Companies often get disrupted by this despite the fact that it can be anticipated and defended against. The problem is that companies have such poor situational awareness that they can't distinguish between the two most basic forms of disruption - unpredictable product vs product substitution and anticipatable product to utility substitution. For most, it's all the same. Failing to get to grips with this can break the company and this failure happens regularly at a very grand scale.

The second area to note is that of the uncharted space. These needs are defined (on the evolution curve) as being both rare and highly uncertain. Which means unless you're using an ecosystem play as some form of future sensing engine then you're going to have to gamble and there is no consistent way of determining what the user ACTUALLY needs. It's the same with any component in the uncharted space - you have to gamble and experiment whether than component is something you are building or a user need that you're trying to meet.

So lets think about those user needs. When it comes to dealing with them then there are three different approaches according to the domains of uncharted, transitional and industrialised (more on the terms I use here). These three approaches are :-
  • In the uncharted space you have to gamble. Users and experts don't actually know what is needed.
  • In the transitional space you have to listen. Users and experts can guide you to how to improve the thing.
  • In the industrialised space, you have to be mindful of users and experts bias caused by the inertia of past success. You already know what is needed but it has to be provided on a volume operations and good enough basis.

If we go back to 2005 and when I started implementing the pioneer, settler and town planner structure (for details, this post from 2012 is good enough) then you'll note that under the "Happy with" section it says :-
  • Pioneers should ignore existing customers. They don't have a clue. We're exploring the uncharted space.  No-one has a clue. You don't know what you'll find and what might turn out to be useful. Gambling and gut feel should rule your world.
  • Settlers should listen to customers. Feedback, learning, constant improvement are your watchwords. Building what is useful is your motto.
  • Town Planners should build what is needed, which often means overriding existing customers inertia to change. Volume operations of good enough, empires of scale are your creed.

There has always been method to my madness. Oh, and it should by now be obvious why building a customer journey is nowhere near enough to determine what you should be doing. It's certainly way better than not even knowing the customer journey but ignore evolution at your peril.

Customer journeys are a bit like value stream mapping - a great tool but highly dangerous as you can easily make ineffective flows more efficient or in the case of customer journey build for unnecessary or biased needs. Ditto with business model canvas, an excellent tool which should be used at the end of a journey for confirmation & checking and not the beginning. I cannot emphasise enough how important a bit of situational awareness is. This requires position and movement!

But also remember that maps won't give you the "answer". They are primarily a means of communication and learning, for highlighting assumptions and common patterns. There are no "perfect" maps (even in geography) and maps must always be challenged.

Lastly, as a reminder - all the mapping stuff is creative commons share alike. The only people who can truly effectively map an environment are those who are immersed within it. Which means YOU have to map YOUR environment. Don't try and get a consultancy to do this for you. Learn yourself.

My Favourite Film of 1951. by Feeling Listless

Film As a test, I decided to enter the most famous phrase from The Day The Earth Stood Still, "Klaatu barada nikto", into an anagram server. This found no single word or two word results. For three words:

Databank Tailor Auk
Databank Ritual Oak
Tanbark Koala Audit
Data Karakul Obtain

At least two of which could be viable English translations.

An Auk is a "medium-sized seabirds with long, barrel-shaped bodies, short tails, very small wings and short legs set far back on the body" [from the RSPB] and the Little Auk has featured on Radio 4's Tweet of the Day.

Tanbark is the bark of certain species of tree. It is traditionally used for tanning hides.

A Karakul is a breed of sheep.

Requesting four words leads to 866 options the last of which is Aura Boat Kinda Talk.  Which given the content of the film is erie.

Requesting five words predicts 14,581 options.  Here is the first thousand, ending with A Labia Dank Ark Tout.

Probably best to leave this here.

All In This Together by The Leveller

The Guardian revealed on Sunday that the head of HMRC, the government body responsible for investigating and regulating tax loopholes, was a partner in a City firm that acted for the offshore entity that David Cameron had shares in. Edward Troup was a part owner of Troup, Simmons & Simmons until 2004 when he joined the civil service, and once wrote in a Financial Times column that “taxation is legalized extortion”.

While there is no indication from the documents the Guardian has seen that Troup personally advised any of Mossack Fonseca’s offshore entities, it is a clear ethical conflict of interest that his firm managed Blairmore Holdings, who have never paid a penny of tax in the UK throughout their 30 year history despite having almost certainly been run and managed in Britain.

The defences the Tories will want to wheel out will most likely be the usual: they’ll probably point out that it’s legal, that tax evasion is criminal but that this is tax avoidance so it’s not so bad, and by the way Ed is a dear friend and he hasn’t got a corrupt bone is body, and so on. Perhaps they’ll feel like there’s too much pressure on them and sack Troup and pretend it was all a terrible mistake. Troup doesn’t really matter.

Are we supposed to believe that Cameron was honestly unaware of Troup’s involvement with these offshore assets?

What matters is that the Tories will go into damage control, and will find out which individual in government they can afford to throw overboard for this. Troup will survive or not depending on whether Cameron feels like he can get away with sacking him and looking like he’s just made an innocent mistake. But the Prime Minister’s political capital is already feeble after last week’s clusterfuck of evasive manoeuvres and lame excuses, and there are rumours that he’s trying to save himself by offering top cabinet positions to Boris and Gove and other Brexit opportunists who could otherwise make him walk the plank.

And with Troup’s connection to his own offshore investment now revealed, Cameron is going to find it very hard to defend himself. Are we supposed to believe that Cameron was honestly unaware of Troup’s involvement with these offshore assets, that he had been invested in himself? The best case scenario for him is that he looks dangerously incompetent, putting a tax dodging expert in charge of HMRC and not bothering to vet the candidate. So he may try for a while to hide behind that and wait for the media to get bored.

The Tories on one day proclaim a belief in rational self-interest as the noblest mechanism of free enterprise, and on another will stiffly pretend that political contributions from vested interests is given out of the goodness of their hearts

But what if the cabinet decides that Cameron is dead weight now, and that maybe it’s time for a mutiny against him? The Tories’ reputation is already toxic enough on the issue of tax avoidance, and Cameron’s entire argument on the subject has for years been an explicitly moral one. He’s made a big show of strutting around as the self-proclaimed champion of tax morality since he took office, and has said loudly and often that the problem isn’t just one of legality but of ethics. If he decides to play dumb, it’s far from certain that the Brexit gang will support him in maintaining that narrative, and may instead find the scent of his blood irresistible.

It would be a mistake, though, to see Cameron’s defenestration (if it happens) as simply a power play by Eurosceptics. Their fear is more existential: the true constituency that the Conservative Party serves is under threat. I’m talking less about their individual accounts and much more about the big banks, the hedge funds, the offshore elites, who bankroll the party and whose blatant-if-legal corruption is no longer fooling anyone.

They have calibrated the state so that particular parts of its apparatus are yoked in the service of financial interests

Even before the Panama leaks we knew that nearly three quarters of top Tory donors are linked to tax havens. Half of all their election funds in 2010 came from the financial sector, in a party who on one day proclaims a belief in rational self-interest as the noblest mechanism of free enterprise, and on another will stiffly pretend that political contributions from vested interests is given out of the goodness of their hearts. That £5 million in party donations from HSBC’s Swiss account holders to numerous Tory politicians doesn’t exactly look like a flood of charitable whimsy.

The Tories have calibrated the state so that particular parts of its apparatus are yoked in the service of financial interests. We know that the head of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead, takes in roughly £500,000 from HSBC as a non-executive director, and that since her appointment the bank’s numerous fraud allegations have received barely any coverage. The Financial Conduct Authority, which has spent three years bullying and stonewalling a whistleblower trying to bring a case to them about a potential HSBC credit card fraud worth £1 billion, contains a board member who worked at a top job at HSBC for five years. Is it unreasonable to wonder if perhaps Troup’s appointment wasn’t made because Cameron decided all by himself that he fancied giving the job to a friend?

If by some bizarre improbability both Cameron and Osborne failed to be aware of Troup’s former work, it would be a hell of a coincidence

To begin with, what the cabinet might not want to trumpet too loudly as this unfolds is that it was actually George Osborne, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was directly responsible for Troup’s appointment. Did the famously calculating Gideon make the slip-up of not knowing some very basic facts about Troup’s career history before making that decision?  On their own website HMRC tell us that “Edward is a qualified solicitor with experience gained in the private sector at Simmons and Simmons”, so it’s hardly as if they’re unaware of his history down at the office. And when Troup was given the job, Osborne, who has previously employed Troup personally, refers to “Edward’s wealth of experience in tax”, while the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, said “his strong financial background make[s] him strongly placed to deliver.”

Of course, Osborne could also try to be cute about it by taking the line that Troup’s work with offshore entities was technically legal and that’s what matters, but then he’d have to disavow that other thing he said when Troup started this job: “he will prove a huge asset to HMRC as it…continues its vital work to clamp down on tax avoidance and evasion”. Avoidance and evasion? How little did he supposedly know about this man who he had already personally employed for several years before appointing him to a top regulatory role in one of the most important departments in the British government?

This is not a crisis of legality but rather a sudden and unavoidable debate about the breadth of political possibility

If by some bizarre improbability both Cameron and Osborne, who each had different connections at different times to Troup, failed to be aware of the fact that Troup was professionally aligned with the kind of offshore entity the public are finally seeing thanks to the Mossack Fonseca leaks, it would be a hell of a coincidence.

What the Panama Papers are increasingly revealing is that this is not a crisis of legality but rather a sudden and unavoidable debate about the breadth of political possibility. How is Troup supposed to lead an inquiry into a system in which he participated? It’s not unreasonable to wonder if that was precisely the logic of his appointment. Troup being rumbled is bad news for institutions like HSBC far more than it will be for David Cameron; they’re the ones who were about to be investigated by a fellow traveller.

If the Tories decide that Cameron is a junk bond and they need to dump him, it won’t be merely to detoxify their brand, but to have an individual take the fall for their collective misdeeds of selling our democracy to their friends in the financial sector, who refuse even to pay their fair share to keep things running smoothly. This is bigger than Cameron; this medieval sense of entitlement of the entire financial class is to blame, and they will want the public to be duped into thinking that Cameron alone is compromised to their will. Among the infighting and the panic, the snarling, existentially urgent goal of the Tories now is to desperately maintain the great lie of our time: that there is not enough to go around.

The post All In This Together appeared first on The Leveller.

April 10, 2016

On mapping and terms that I use by Simon Wardley

I'm often asked questions about specific terms in mapping, so I thought I'd write something on the terms I use. Lets first start with the strategy cycle (a derivative of Sun Tzu and John Boyd).

The Strategy cycle

When I talk about Context then I'm covering Purpose (who you are, moral imperative, where you fit into the entire picture) and Landscape (your map).

When I talk about your Environment, I'm not only talking about your Context but also how it is Changing (either common economic patterns, known competitor actions and things that can be anticipated). There are many context specific strategic plays but whether you play them is also influenced by your environment e.g. a competitor.  Hence, for example, I'm hardly going to play Fool's mate in chess against a competitor who is anything but a novice. 

How well you understand your environment (i.e. the context and how it is changing) is situational awareness. Fortunately in business, most companies are atrocious at this because they can't even see context, let alone try to understand or anticipate changes to it.

The most common tool I use to improve situational awareness is a map (basics of mapping can be found here). The map I'm using at a particular time to deal with a specific area of focus, I refer to as Actual.

Each map has three domains. The uncharted space where exploration and gambling is a must. The industrialised space where more certainty rules and the in-between space of the transitional. Each domain has different patterns of economic competition.

The map is also broken into four stages of evolution. 

Now each stage has different properties i.e. the characteristics of things are not the same. I say things because you can map activities, practices, data and knowledge (i.e. different types of things). I've covered this in a previous post on what's in a Wardley map and how to use a cheat sheet for characteristics to determine stage. However, for reference the following table provides the connections between domains, stages and types.

The map has an Anchor (the point it's built around). In my case, that anchor is the user and their need. In a geographical map it's the compass (this is north of that etc). 

Critically, a map also has position (relative to the anchor) and movement i.e. how things can change. I cannot emphasise enough how position and movement are absolutely essential elements of a map and a necessity for both understanding context and learning from it. Without position and movement then you have a nice diagram.

A map also contains many components which maybe of different types.

Each component has one or more interfaces to other components. Since this is a chain of needs, those interfaces are of the form A needs B i.e. things that our component needs and things that need our component.

Within the map there also various forms of flow along these chains. Such a flow can be financial, information or risk but remember, it's not enough to optimise flow - you need to think about the context and how evolved the components are. It's far too easy to make an ineffective flow more efficient because you're ignoring evolution.

So, to summarise, I've provided a simple table of terms I use.

Understanding context is extremely important for learning common economic patterns, universally applicable doctrine and context specific forms of gameplay. I've written some basics here but I'll cover more in detail over the next few posts.

Doctrine, Climate and Context Specific gameplay by Simon Wardley

One of the main advantages of mapping a competitive environment (for a basic introduction, read this) is it provides a mechanism of not only communication but learning. What you quickly discover is there a basic economic patterns and competitor actions which influence your environment (the Climate), there are universal approaches applicable to all (the Doctrine) and then there's context specific forms of Gameplay.

The context specific forms of gameplay are like pincer movements or Fool's mate in chess. They are applicable in only specific contexts unlike doctrine which is universal. Part of the problem with not mapping out the environment is that without a reasonable level of situational awareness then people simply copy others ... "we should do what Uber is doing!"

Alas, without that understanding of landscape then you've no idea whether the meme you're copying is universal or context specific. Hence my joke at OSCON last year on "Surge pricing for funeral parlours!"

The problem is the amount of context specific play vastly exceeds universal doctrine and so it's highly likely that if you simply copy another company then you'll be applying something to the wrong context. The mishmash of universal doctrine and context specific play is often best found in management consultant 2x2s, particular that most ridiculous of forms - the SWOT diagram.

To give some examples, well that would be a rather long post, so I'll keep it short and fill in further posts later. I'll start by just giving three tables with examples of climate (economic patterns), doctrine (universal) and gameplay (context specific) with a reminder that you are operating in the "strategy cycle". These are far from an exhaustive list, this is just a taster.

Strategy Cycle

Climate (economic and competitor patterns)

Doctrine (universally applicable regardless of value chain and context)

Gameplay (context specific mechanisms, not universally applicable, choices have to be made)

"distance in time" by Feeling Listless

Theatre For The New York Review of Books, Stephen Greenblatt writes the universality of Shakespeare:

"Even at this distance in time, Shakespeare’s greatest contemporary playwrights, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, both seem directly and personally present in their work in a way that Shakespeare does not. In the case of Jonson—too eager to display his scholarly mastery over his source materials, too bound up with the drama of his own life, and too anxious to retain absolute control over his own finished work—that presence is explicitly avowed in a variety of prefaces, prologues, and authorial interventions, with the result that his work, though splendid, seems entirely of a particular time and place and author."

April 09, 2016

Which Baltimore officials are implicated in the Panama Papers? by The Leveller

Baltimore, it may interest you to know that many of your local elected officials are implicated in the Panama Papers. The Cordish family, which is tied to the Baltimore City Housing Authority, Johns Hopkins, Loyola, the Harbor Endowment Foundation, and is a major contributor to Martin-Lauer Associates’ clients, has huge assets in Mossack Fonseca.

The Baltimore Brew reports that Cordish is a big donor to mayoral candidate Carl Stokes and a client of City Council candidate Eric Costello. And of course Cordish was also a major backer of Mayor Rawlings-Blake. Also, according to Luke Broadwater at the Baltimore Sun, Cordish-tied donors have given big to Elizabeth Embry’s campaign. So, that’s Elizabeth Embry, Carl Stokes, Eric Costello & Stephanie Rawlings-Blake whose campaign cash is tied to the offshore tax havens in the Panama Papers. And as Cordish is linked to Colleen Martin-Lauer, then the possibility is very real that Martin-Lauer clients get Cordish cash, which could implicate Marilyn and Nick Mosby, Pete Welch, Mary-Pat Clarke, Brandon Scott, Sharon Greene Middleton & Bill Cole.

Of course it’s not just Baltimore City officials taking Cordish money. Dave donates big nationally. Major Cordish family individual contributions have gone from John Kasich to Hillary Clinton (whose is also linked to other big shots implicated in the Panama Papers) and everywhere between, and of course nearly every Maryland congressperson gets Cordish corporate cash, as did President Obama and Lindsay Graham.

Corruption in Panama’s offshore tax havens links to corruption in Baltimore City, in Kiev, in Tbilisi, in Washington and Westminster. The release of this information is being managed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

The post Which Baltimore officials are implicated in the Panama Papers? appeared first on The Leveller.

Against Technological Determinism: Blockchains and Encryption by Albert Wenger

When the web first emerged I remember vividly the excitement that I and many others felt about the potential for decentralized and permissionless publishing. Want to put some content out there? Register a domain, run a web server and publish. No newspaper, journal, book publishers and editors to ask for permission. A massive shift of power to the people.

Fast forward to 2016 and we have an internet where much of the activity is dominated by a few super large players with centralized platforms, most notably Facebook and Google but also others including Twitter. As investors who early on bet on network effects we know well how this happened. And because production functions based on information are supermodular these network effects are now leveraged into adjacent spaces (which is made easier by massive profitability).

The key takeaway though: technology by itself doesn’t want anything. It makes things possible. The web made decentralized publishing possible but it *also* made large centralized platforms possible. Where we wind up in this massively enlarged space of possibility is *not* determined by the technology but rather by the workings of society and economy. Those in turn respond to changes in beliefs and regulation. So it comes down to what we as humans want our society and economy to be like.

I am pointing this out because we are making a similar mistake in the pursuit of blockchains and encryption. I am a big fan of what blockchains can do to help undermine network effects by moving data into a layer that is not controlled by a single organization. I have also written about my fears of heading into a spy versus spy society in response to widespread adoption of encryption.

Blockchains and encryption once again broaden the space of the possible. But in and of themselves again this technology does not want anything. Yes on the surface both technologies look like they are somehow inherently decentralizing. And their most ardent advocates truly and deeply believe that once we get to a world of blockchains and pervasive encryption we will finally truly have given more power to individuals. 

I don’t believe that to be true. There are still plenty of centralizing forces in the world, in particular the existing and growing concentration of capital and information. Let me give two concrete examples. 

The first are offshore entities for hiding capital. Some people have celebrated how encrypted communication played a role in the Panama Papers leak. You can bet though that quite rapidly all communication and documentation about offshore entities will be fully encrypted thus making future leaks of the same form much, much harder.

The second are medical records. Sure people could start keeping their medical records with their own keys in the blockchain. That, however, will do nothing to the structure of the medical and pharmaceutical industries which currently are the only ones who can amass the kind of large scale data collection that is necessary to develop and test new treatments.

If we want to reap the benefits that blockchain and encryption technologies can have for increasing individual freedom then it is *not* enough to build them. We must also want to change ourselves and society accordingly. And that requires a critical dialog about what regulatory and belief changes are necessary so that we can accomplish these through democratic processes

Follow along: SpaceX CRS-8 launch and landing by The Planetary Society

Follow along with The Planetary Society as SpaceX launches a Dragon spacecraft to the ISS and attempts to land a used booster rocket on a drone ship in the ocean. Liftoff is scheduled for 4:43 p.m. EDT (20:43 UTC).

How to Make a Pluto Globe by The Planetary Society

Want to make your own globe of Pluto? Here's how!

April 08, 2016

The Deer Stalker. by Feeling Listless

Books Sometimes Doctor Who writer Paul Cornell's episode of Elementary was broadcast in the UK last night and although I didn't spot any direct Who references (apart from perhaps a list of deaths for various reasons) the comic book material was spot on (I was able to watch due to my Faustian pact with the devil) (a NowTV subscription).

I don't want to talk about it too much because I'm more conscious than ever of spoilers, but needless to say I didn't guess who the killer was at all, although much of the time I don't think the viewer is really supposed to.

Back in the day, the BBC Cult website housed a Sherlock Holmes fiction page which includes a short story featuring a missing adventure for the Conan Doyle original, The Deer Stalker and it's still online. Says Paul:

""I've always been fascinated with the gaps in the Sherlock Holmes stories, the stuff that we don't see about how Holmes functions as a real person. Conan Doyle, I think, realised that Holmes is one particularly attractive/ugly aspect of the male psyche made flesh, almost incapable of a complete literary life, and so suggested that Holmes 'switches off' between cases with his drugs, almost as if he really doesn't exist when one isn't reading about him."
You can read the story here.

Orphaned Black. by Feeling Listless

TV Some news you might have missed yesterday amid the Panama Papers and everything else which was happening. It looks as though BBC Three have lost the rights to Orphan Black (which is a BBC America series) to Netflix and it premieres in the UK (and the rest of the world next Friday, publishing within twenty-four hours of the UK broadcast on a weekly basis.

Yes, the same day as Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (because females are strong as hell).

Basically you don't pay for the streaming service you're snookered, unless BBC Three have retained some kind of second run rights, although given the cut in budget that seems unlikely. Vodzilla has a longer version of the story. 

On the one hand I'm very excited not to have wait six months a UK appearance but the BBC fan part of me recognises with some sadness how the UK corporation has finally divested itself of its last ongoing imported US drama, albeit one which is produced by one of its international commercial arms.

Is the world really a better place now that six o'clock on BBC Two is all about Eggheads and not starships and vampire slayers?

Live mice, cabbage, and a drone ship: Your SpaceX Dragon launch preview by The Planetary Society

Tomorrow afternoon, SpaceX plans to launch its Dragon cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station for the first time since a catastrophic accident last June.

Fog Detection from the Surface of Titan: New Findings From Old Data by The Planetary Society

Huygens may have landed on Titan over a decade ago, but a group of researchers from York University were able to make a new and unexpected discovery with this older dataset.

April 07, 2016

Standing-by. by Feeling Listless

Film In 2015 when I named Chalet Girl as my favourite film of 2011, little did I think that she'd be the female lead in a Star Wars spin-off film about the capture of the Death Star plans and yet there she is.  The trailer is peak franchise service, of course, resembling a massively budgeted fan film of the kind which crop up on or YouTube nevertheless it's entirely thrilling and I can't imagine it won't do similar business to The Force Awakens when it's released at the end of the year.

Having originated with Lord of the Rings, the baton passed to Harry Potter and then back to The Hobbit, Disney/Lucasfilm have grabbed it from Warners and are gone.  Between main series releases and anthology spin-offs, they could potentially own Christmas for years to come.  None of us could have imagined a decade ago that we'd potentially be getting a Star Wars film a year.  How could Warners have got one of their crown jewels quite so wrong?

Some notes on world building by Charlie Stross

Last Sunday I gave a brief talk discussing world-building in SF/F at the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

I've been quiet since then because of a combination of work and a stomach bug. Meanwhile, here's the outline for my talk. (Yes, it's fully collapsible/expandable.)

First Folio Found. by Feeling Listless

Books A new (as in newly discovered) First Folio has been found in Bute. The BBC has the full story:

Alice Martin, Mount Stuart's head of historic collections, believes it was bought by the third Marquess of Bute, an antiquarian and collector, who died in 1900.

The trust which runs the Gothic revival house had been researching the collection of books, paintings and historic items and called in experts from Oxford University to assess the authenticity of what had been claimed as a First Folio.

Apart from its cultural value, verification makes the book extremely valuable. A copy owned by Oriel College, Oxford sold for about £3.5m in 2003.

Authenticating a copy involves a series of technical checks on, among other things, the watermarked paper and printing process.
The Descriptive Catalogue will need updating.

Another Baltimore Is Possible by The Leveller

Baltimore City is an incredible place. It is beautiful, it is horrifying, it has unlimited potential and yet it remains a train wreck.

Baltimore’s citizens have been lead poisoned by government decisions and by the city’s toxic relationship with Johns Hopkins. And sadly, despite court findings in favor of the poisoned citizens, the city still has never paid a dime in reparations, just as it will likely be in Flint, Michigan. And it likely never will, at least not during the victims’ (inevitably-reduced) lifetimes.

Johns Hopkins, with their billions in untaxed profits, their horrific development practices, and their blatant and unapologetic environmental racism, has not simply eaten Baltimore alive, it has skinned the city, put on its corpse like a suit, and walks around pretending to be Baltimore like some sort of horrific corporate-educational version of Edward the Bug from Men in Black.

Ironically, under any normal tax structure Johns Hopkins would have paid tens of billions of dollars into the city’s tax coffers over the years, but because of the favorable regulations for Hopkins institutions they pay next to nothing and the city from which they leech and whose citizens they poison is too poor to pay the victims.

Another of the reasons for this eternal non-payment is the completely unexplainable power of Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano, despite his department literally raping the citizens they are supposed to serve (yes, coercing women to have sex with you so that their children do not freeze to death or get brain damage from toxic mold or other substances, that’s rape), among other crimes. Graziano is the man responsible for the city not paying its part of the lead reparations, and has been investigated by state legislators for it. And yet Graziano remains, largely due to his connections with very powerful people in Baltimore City.

The money of the Cordish family, a major power player in Baltimore’s institutions, has been found nesting next to Vladimir Putin’s ill-gotten gains in the newly uncovered Panama Papers.

Among those powerful connections is the hub of the political money machines of Graziano-protectors Martin O’Malley and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake: Colleen Martin-Lauer. The Leveller previously took Martin-Lauer Associates to task for their role as funnel for establishment, white supremacist money.

It is incredibly likely that Martin-Lauer was shocked by these allegations. At the very least from private meetings it has been reported that Martin-Lauer describes herself as the force behind the rise of black political representation in Baltimore, and the likelihood is that she truly views herself this way.

But this is more than simply white-savior delusion, ignoring decades of powerful black families in the city. No, it is apologism for the blackwashing of white supremacist interests in the city. One way or another, at the time Colleen Martin-Lauer was hitting it big on the political scene, black people were going to start getting elected as a fact of demographic necessity.

What Martin-Lauer did was ensure that only those black faces that were palatable to white business interests and cops would make it through her vetting process and be granted access to the resources necessary to attain and sustain power. And she is a self-described feminist powerhouse, but again, the kind of white bourgeois feminist who happily trots out a black or brown female body when it helps her cause, but ignores the needs of black and brown women on the institutional level.

The new Amazon distribution center is simply another trap for Baltimore’s poor

How bad is the corruption of Baltimore’s political money trail? So bad that the money of the Cordish family, a Baltimore fixture with ties to the City Housing Authority, the Harbor Endowment Foundation, Johns Hopkins, Loyola, and also a major contributor to top Martin-Lauer clients, has been found nesting next to Vladimir Putin’s ill-gotten gains in the newly uncovered “Panama Papers.”

And yet, following the light that’s been shone on Martin-Lauer, some of the city’s best reform candidates have signed on with her services, receiving establishment money with probably white-supremacy connections in exchange for promises of who knows what. Even her rumored retirement after the 2016 elections is not cause for celebration: With Martin-Lauer gone, it merely becomes harder to see the money trail, but it will no doubt remain even without its now-observable funnel.

“What reformers have to understand is that they’re never going to get anywhere without radicals and revolutionaries to betray”

Even developments hailed as great successes for the people of the city are in fact just more institutional establishment traps. The new Amazon distribution center (dubbed a “fulfillment center” by the Orwellian wordsmiths at Amazon and echoed by Baltimore politicians) that was hailed as salvation by bringing in 1000 new jobs to one of the poorer areas of the city is simply another trap for Baltimore’s poor: take a merciless, benefit-less minimum wage job with no job security, or stay with the more profitable jobs preexisting in the criminal economy. These “bullshit jobs” are being hailed as wonders by former reformers who are now taking Martin-Lauer money, which is easily explained by the fact that Amazon has paid tens of thousands in lobbying fees to Martin-Lauer connection Venable, LLP.

As David Graeber, Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, eloquently put it: “What reformers have to understand is that they’re never going to get anywhere without radicals and revolutionaries to betray.” Sadly, in many of the political races where there was the most room for hope, the candidates being hailed as reformers haven’t even waited to be elected to betray the radicals. A shocking number have skipped their chance to amplify the people’s cries and have instead hitched their financial wagons to the powers that be.

It’s not shocking that the establishment has pursued these reformers. There is a reason the powerful remain so for so long: they can smell inevitable change, and they know how to harness it. They find the reformers and they make sure to own them. No, what’s shocking is how many well-informed reformers have knowingly chosen to throw in with the forces of white supremacy in the city, assuming in all likelihood that they won’t turn out like all the rest of those who turn corrupt after taking dirty money.

“We need a City Council that engages and builds community across lines of difference”

Often revolutionaries become mere reformers when they get elected. It is the mediating force of electoral office. But when those revolutionaries who could have overthrown the corrupt system instead decide to throw in with it, they are little more than a face lift.

And as we come in to the home stretch of the 2016 primary elections, the only election that actually matters in a one-party city like Baltimore, the conventional media makes it sound like the only net change will be the face of power, not the structures or use. Of course, that same conventional media has long been a tool of those powers they claim will not be changing.

Amazing how all of this corruption is connected, isn’t it? We’ve got nothing new to report, we’ve got no uplifting evidence to give us hope that the title is true, that another Baltimore is possible. Yet, unlike Martin O’Malley who in 2002 asked the city to “risk action on faith” and then ate the city alive, we do not “BELIEVE” in a better Baltimore. The thing that gives us hope that another Baltimore is possible is YOU.

Sure, there’s institutional challengers who could upset things a little. Zeke Cohen and Deray McKesson are definitely high on our list, as are Dea Thomas and Kristerfer Bernett. And some incumbents even give us hope, like eternal pain-in-the-ass Bill Henry who the establishment keeps trying to unseat. Yeah, there’s little rays of sunshine here and there throughout city politics.

In an interview with The Leveller, Zeke Cohen, a candidate for City Council in the oh-so-white First District, sounds like the voice of the Baltimore Algebra Project made palatable for white people, or perhaps a more polished David Simon. He’s an outlier in Baltimore, having made the unglamorous subject of education policy his top issue. In the rare moments he’s not talking about schools and students, Cohen admits why he doesn’t sound quite like his activist allies:

Baltimore is really polarized right now. And it breaks down in the kinds of ways you’d expect…That’s the trouble of my campaign: people zone out when you talk about race. So how do you talk about public policies like ‘Zero Tolerance’ policing that have eroded trust between officers and citizens, and disproportionately hurt communities of color, in a way that people can listen to without zoning out while still holding true to your values? We can’t continue to have areas of deeply concentrated poverty or it will spill over into your own neighborhoods. That’s why we need a City Council that engages and builds community across lines of difference”.

But Cohen doesn’t just get his moment because he wants it, and certainly it’s got nothing to do with that institutional Democrat logic of “it’s my turn”. In our interview, Cohen declared “I’m not against development. The city needs to grow its population. I just don’t think we should PAY them to come in and TAKE the best waterfront property left in the state of Maryland!”

From his tone you can tell he’s used that line before, and he knows it resonates. And the thing is, that line only resonates because you, the people of Baltimore, got fed up and said “No More!” And because that line resonates, the former incumbent in Cohen’s district, developer-cozy incumbent Jim Kraft, gave up his seat under threat of your anger (though there’s another Martin-Lauer-supported bank-cozy development-lover vying to take Kraft’s place instead of Cohen).

It’s resonating in other districts, too. Dea Thomas, candidate for City Council in District 11, is up against another developer-loving white guy, Eric Costello, who was roundly despised by locals for his gentrifying efforts before he was appointed to the City Council in 2014. But Costello’s still establishment, and like Graziano, establishment figures with enough economic backing can weather any storm in Baltimore. Or at least that’s how it used to be. Thomas’ challenge to Costello is only possible for the same reason that Cohen’s is possible: your rage.

In an interview with The Leveller, Thomas went in-depth into her plans for bringing her district and the city into the light, discussing issues of development, education, housing and jobs in a way that really highlighted an understanding of the city’s needs. She rounded it out with a real all-encompassing pitch:

“We are approaching one year since last April’s Uprising and it seems some of our leaders and candidates have not learned that the age of business as usual politics will not suffice. We must champion communities that are working to empower themselves through development of community economics, cradle-to-career education, employment with an eye to recidivism, and safe, quality, affordable housing.”

But just like for Cohen’s district, Martin-Lauer sees the changing winds in the 11th, too, and has put her resources behind business-friendly challenger Greg Sileo to make sure a real change agent like Thomas doesn’t make trouble. But she’s still waving the “No More!” banner, and her chances don’t look bad. Because of you.

“Deray came into this thinking he was walking into a marketplace of ideas, when it’s really a street fight”

Deray McKesson, whose Mayoral campaign arranged and then cancelled two separate interviews for this article, built his entire framework on that exact same declaration that you made: “No More”. The rest of the mayoral field is made up of what Dave Troy, local entrepreneur and founder of 410Labs, calls “Tribes”:

“In a city like Baltimore each candidate has their own personal social network, which forms their ‘base.’ Being a ‘city of neighborhoods’ is a homespun way of saying that we are a city of relatively isolated cliques. So what we find is that rather than selecting from a marketplace of ideas, Baltimoreans tend towards rooting for the candidate with whom we have the most friends in common.

It boils down to which part of the extractive strip mining economy you inhabit. So, the MBE contractors/developers cluster around Dixon, because those are her people. The corporate lobbyists cluster around Pugh, because that’s her tribe from Annapolis. Warnock’s people are all in finance, venture capital, and private equity. Embry’s folks are all people she knows from law school or from working with Bernstein and Frosh, (jobs she got because of the law school networks).

It’s personal, and self-interest is reinforced by the personal, by where you live, by the kind of art you like and don’t like, which really boils down to coded spaces, where people feel comfortable, etc. We are like a dozen small cities inhabiting a single municipality.”

Deray, on the other hand, is not attached to any tribe in the city. And the people’s declaration of “No More” is the reason that Deray’s chances of tribeless victory seemed so high. But on the subject of Deray, Troy had this to say:

I like McKesson too, and find it fascinating how much people absolutely can’t stand his candidacy; again, the tribalism at work; they want to flush him out so bad, and he’s FROM here! Deray’s tribelessness is precisely why he is having trouble getting any traction. He grew up with a few people here and a couple dozen folks seem to know and vouch for him locally. He came into this thinking he was walking into a marketplace of ideas, when it’s really a street fight.”

On that note, legendary Baltimore media personality Marc Steiner had this to say:

“This whole hatred of Deray is really misplaced… I have interviewed him, spent time with him. I think he’s genuine. He did not decide to be famous – the media decided he was to be famous. One can criticize him for not being part of this city for a long time then “parachuting in” to run for Mayor but he has serious ideas. He has never taken credit for starting protests here. The factionalizing we get into border on the petty, and is part of what destroys the ability to build a movement in this city.”

It is for this reason that Deray is not our shining beacon on a hill. The candidates are not what gives us hope. You are. You, the non-tribal voters and activists of Baltimore City, none of them get their moment without you taking your moment.

Between 2006 and 2011, I met many energetic Baltimore community organizers making a strong case for revolt, for an Uprising. But as I worked for reform candidates, not revolutionaries, I watched them make their cases from the sidelines, and I was always impressed with how quickly, how succinctly, how easily the black women they were trying to incite to rebellion give them a reality check: “How the fuck am I gonna have a revolution when I have to work three jobs just to feed my kids?” It was the realism that revolutions ignore at their peril.

By taking institutional money and support, what should have been “new blood” is now merely a new face for those same entrenched interests

But in 2015, the city reached its tipping point, and people realized that even if they work three jobs to feed their kids, even if they raise those children responsibly and law-abidingly, the state and its enforcers will nonetheless rape them and murder their children, be it through police brutality or lead poisoning or sex-for-repairs. You finally lost all hope and you finally found your rage, and with it your voice. You rose up and you said “No More”. And you terrified the establishment.

Why do you think the establishment powers like Martin-Lauer did such a reshuffle after the riots? The Baltimore Uprisings gave us a chance to have these conversations, but of course the powers that be want to make sure, no matter how many nice conversations we end up having about race and prisons and jobs and poverty and structural inequality, we never actually address the systemic corruption in Baltimore City that lines their pockets.

Don’t buy their platitudes that now that you’ve voted your civic duty is done. Keep them scared

And so establishment money-funneler Colleen Martin-Lauer dumped some of her longstanding puppets and latched on to her own crew of “reformers”, who talk a good game but won’t be rocking the boat. By taking institutional money and support, what should have been “new blood” is now merely a new face for those same entrenched interests.

But you rose up, and you haven’t sat back down, and we don’t think you’ll be sitting down now either. If they bow to those same interests, that pretty new reformer face is going to have the same metaphorical bruises and bloodied lips you gave the last one a year ago at the start of the Uprising.

This city has been ruined from the ballot box for decades, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vote. The façade was just burned to the ground. Now is your chance to rebuild the city yourself, instead of letting the same moneyed interests of white supremacy who so fear you continue to control your lives by failing to cast a ballot against them. Vote. Vote intelligently. Vote for radicals and reformers who won’t take institutional money. Vote against the powers that be. But don’t buy their platitudes that now that you’ve voted your civic duty is done. Keep them scared, the reformers and the revolutionaries too. Make it clear that you will shut it all down again at the first sign of corruption and backsliding. The power is finally in your hands because you took it.

Don’t ever back down.




Image: Maryland National Guard

The post Another Baltimore Is Possible appeared first on The Leveller.

7 project ideas by Richard Pope

Some things from an Evernote notebook called 'ideas':

  1. Open Need Map

    A structured wiki for mapping things that are needed by people and organisations at particular places. eg items at a food bank, volunteer tasks for organisations, items required at a refugee camp.

    Data would be available via an API so, for example, it would be possible for a third-party e-commerce service to invite you to add something a local charity needs to your basket, or for an employer that gives it's staff time off to volunteer to add local volunteering opportunities directly to an employee's pay slip.

  2. DIY citizen juries

    A service where people can pledge to spend 2 days a year responding to a random government consultation. Each consultation is sent to a group of people along and a temporary email group to allow them to discuss the issues and draft their response(s).

  3. URL dials

    A physical dial like the bicycle barometer that does one thing: display the number published at a URL. It would be laser cut from laminated wood so users can write the scale directly on each dial. A generic tool for displaying data in the physical world.

  4. Assets of community value

    A service that makes it easy to both identify and build support for local amenities to be added to the Assets of Community Value register. Open Street Map data would be used to display the percentage of parks/pubs/public spaces etc currently listed. Users could check in to register their support.

  5. Distributed local information platform

    Experiment with using GNU social or to build a distributed messaging service for posting local information (planning applications, lost cats, parking suspensions). Test if it would be possible for local councils or local interest groups to run their own interoperable instances.

  6. Product datastore

    A datastore of the products that a household owns. Data is entered by scanning receipts, forwarding emails etc. Product recall notices and personal environmental impact reports are generated automatically. (We experimented with this idea at Consumer Focus Labs, but it feels doable now).

  7. Total hyperlocal alerts

    Scrape and buy all the data that the internet has on a 3 square mile area of the UK - everything from planning applications, house sales, edits of the Wikipedia for a local monument, crime etc - and build an alerts service on top of it. Show what would be possible if communities had total, high quality structured information about their communities. (aka Brixton Radar done properly).

April 06, 2016

Bimodal, dual operating system and bolt-ons. by Simon Wardley

I've just read this ZDNet article which describes me as holding a view that

"bimodal concept is flawed because it attempts to "bolt on innovation" rather than develop it more organically from inside the existing IT architecture irrespective of cloud services"

This is completely untrue.

When new things appear, we have historically tended to bolt on departments because our organisational structures are not designed to adapt. My current favourite example of this is the Chief Digital Officer but you could say the same about Chief Electricity Officer and other past transformations. Bolting on structures is a symptom of failure to build an adaptive structure. However, that is separate from my objection to bimodal & dual operating structures.

I'll go through my objections.

1) Practice. The concept of two extremes in organisations date backs to before 2002, and was noticeably highlighted in the Salaman & Storey innovation paradox.

”paradox is at the heart of innovation. The pressing need for survival in the short term requires efficient exploration of current competencies and requires ‘coherence, coordination and stability’; whereas exploration / innovation requires the discovery and development of new competencies and this requires the loosening and replacement of these erstwhile virtues”

Shortly after that time, I became CEO of a Canon subsidiary. I knew the single approach didn't seem to work well and so we tried a more dual structure in IT. What happened was almost warfare between the groups. The development group would create "new stuff" but the operational team wouldn't touch it because it was "flaky". It was not a happy time and after an initial promising start, things had rapidly degenerated into them vs us. Something was missing.

2) The Missing Middle. What was missing was the middle, the transitional stage between the genesis of something new and its industrialisation. To cope with that, we implemented a structure loosely based on Robert X. Cringely's 1993 book Accidental Empires which discussed the three different approaches. The terminology I use is Pioneers, Settler and Town Planners (PST). This worked and the problem had been the chasm between the groups was not only too big but by focusing on the extremes we had accidentally diminished the all important middle. I do mean all important - continuous and sustainable advantage comes from managing the middle not the ends. It seems that ignoring the process of evolution was not a good idea. Oh, and as with most of my work - yes, I've eaten my own dog food and by no means should you consider PST as the solution as no-one yet knows how to organise effectively and remain adaptive. You must accept that there is still some exploration to be done.

3) Spaghetti Junction. Whilst I had implemented the pioneer - settler - town planner structure almost a decade ago, spoken about it at many conferences, my focus in 2008 was diverted elsewhere - namely running strategy for Canonical. However, it was around that time I was asked to speak at an event where a large global company described their latest attempts to rebuild their "platform " because it was unwieldy. I was asked to have a look. The problem was simply they had built their platform with a dual structure and this inevitably leads to the never growing platform and spaghetti junction. I've written more about this here and it is something I've come across several times. It doesn't matter how good your technology is it won't fix your structure. Personally, you should focus on building a cell based structure first as per Haier or Amazon and worry about managing attitude later.

4) Ring fencing. More recently I've seen dual operating structures used as an attempt to ring fence change. In this case, you've got a very operationally run group (often with a non strategic CIO) and there is concern over the threat of this "new digital" bolt-on. The solution is seen as dual structure which is basically a way of saying "you digital lot can play with your crayons over there, don't disturb us". This is not healthy or helpful when faced with an evolving industry and just helps reinforce inertia.

5) Legacy. To compound things people having started to confuse "legacy" (which really should be called toxic IT) as being the role of one group. Not only is this dangerously misguided as to what legacy actually is and how co-evolution causes it (it can appear at different stages of evolution, more on this here) but now you are emphasising one group as the "future new" and one as the "past old". You might as well call them Eloi and Morlocks and give them axes. You're also in danger of highlighting one group as more important when in reality you need brilliant people in all. Furthermore you've buried the all important middle.

There is absolutely nothing good I can say about dual operating system structures as a universal doctrine. Not even as a transitional model. I hold a view based upon experience, practice and an understanding of the principles of evolution that such dual structures are over simplistic thinking. If you want to transition then go cell based first (e.g. Amazon's two pizza, starfish) and deal with attitude later. I'm quite convinced in this meme copying world that lots of companies will still jump on this as the solution and I suspect that some people will try to use it to prevent change to their empires. In my opinion, neither is good for the future welfare of an organisation.

So certainly organisations have historically tended to bolt-on departments for innovation but this is not new. The polar extremes in an organisation is also not new. Even organising by the extremes and the failure it causes is not new. In reality, it's so not new it's a decade old.

But that won't stop Gartner from promoting bimodal, the "new" (old) hotness and I'm mindful that if they said "The secret was to tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree" then some would empty Amazon of stock. They have their adoring fans. When they stuck to technology analysis, producing MQs and hypecycles (which are just aggregated opinion not some scientific measure of physical property btw) then I also generally found them harmless and occasionally useful. This new venture of theirs, I don't view in the same light.

As for Gartner's view that you have to "Go bimodal or go home", well I view this as reckless promotion. Also trying to link this particular form of structure with a technology evolution (e.g. cloud) is very questionable. Yes, organisations are needing to evolve and there is specific phenotype that is emerging that is caused by the underlying evolution of technology. I wrote about this many years ago, and for reference this is the result of that population study published to LEF members in 2011.

Now whilst the phenotype had companies gravitating towards mixed methods (rather than single) - the agile vs lean vs six sigma debate is rather past its sell by date - the structure was firmly heading towards cell based. Very rarely were companies considering attitude (as in the need for pioneers, settlers or town planners) and certainly I found no examples of companies promoting organisation by extremes and only rare mention of a concept such as "two speed IT". Hence I am highly suspicious of bimodal, I would have expected some references to organisation by extremes to have emerged even in those early days especially when the other phenotypic changes were so strong.

Caveat Emptor.

"moderate violence" by Feeling Listless

Film It was nice to be able to finally tweet that with some authority now that I've finally seen this unspeakable pile for myself.  Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice more than lives up to its current 29% at Rotten Tomatoes and critical vitriol which surrounded its release.  Make no mistake, this is an awful, awful travesty of a film and the characters it's based on and Warner Bros should be (a) embarrassed that they thought it wouldn't be greeted with the non-welcome that it has by critics and would be a major hit on the scale of Star Wars, Jurassic World and the MARVEL films and (b) really need to think seriously about how they proceed with the rest of this series.

I'll keep this short because I'm most likely not going to say anything you haven't read or heard already.   Narrative wise, it's a mess, shooting backwards and forwards between half communicated themes, too many characters having too little screen time, story threads which falter and force the characters to be two steps behind the audience, action scenes which are generally incoherent, some startlingly inept and obvious dialogue, in Lex Luthor a deeply irritating to watch and poor executed antagonist and a general feeling, as is so often the case with franchise films of a filmmaker trying to bend someone else's mythology to their will rather than celebrating it for what it is.

Two examples of its ineptitude: Lex Luthor just sort of appears.  Lex has had screen time before in the forms of Hackman and Spacey, but this version is completely different interpretation than even appears in most comics and so you'd expect some kind of proper introduction to him, how he fits into the world.  Instead the first time we see him is when he's trying to shanghai the Kryptonian rocket ship from Man of Steel and convincing the US government to give him access.  We have zero sense of who he is, the filmmakers having decided to go with, "Pffr it's Lex Luthor, what more do you need to know?"  Quite a lot actually.

Second example:  why oh, why does the film fall once again on the old standard of damseling girl friends and family members as someone for the superhero to save?  Please stop.  It's true that a couple of MARVEL films have been guilty of this too, but there has to be another way of motivating action sequences and create threat.  The supervillain manual can't be this limited can it?  About the only times it is fair is when the tables are turned by the captor but even that's becoming old hat.  The way it's done here too doesn't feel very 12A either.  The BBFC's view on what constitutes "moderate violence, threat" has become remarkably relaxed of late.

But the overall problem is that its a single protagonist film trying to be a team film.  The story here is about Batman reacting to the fallout from Man of Steel and there's a version of this film which keeps Bruce as our viewpoint character with Superman as a remote figure until the Bat actually has to fight him and its during that fight that he realises, as he does in this film, that they're on the same side and they should be fighting together against a greater threat.  Essentially, a similar structure to Buffy's The Zeppo.

Instead, because it thinks world building is showing a bunch of stuff and because they feel like they don't want to short change the audience by giving Henry Cavill a bit more than a cameo, they create tectonic stresses in the structure of the film and end up making Bruce an antagonist who's actually philosophically on the same page as Lex in places (something which it tries but fails to completely justify) which means when he finally does change his mind and that he's actually Superman's friend it doesn't make any actually narrative sense.

All of which said, Wonder Woman is awesome.  Somehow amid all the other diarrhea swilling around the place, they get Wonder Woman right.  The casting is perfect, Gil Gadot imbued with goddess like baring and temperament and charisma, so much charisma.  When she drops in from the sky, everything suddenly falls back into place as the three of them battle the secondary antagonist and it feels like the film it's been trying to be for the previous will crushing two hours.  But if it wasn't for Wonder Woman ... Still it's a better film that Fan4stic.  Which is something I suppose.

"an unutterable joy" by Feeling Listless

Magazines Low Culture has a oral history piece about the making of the original Doctor Who Adventures and it's an unutterable joy as they describe the churn of having to fill an eventually weekly magazine with fresh material. Example:

"Natalie Barnes took over as editor in 2011, and one of her brilliant ideas was to have interviews with the monsters, posing the very trickiest questions sent in by our readers. I had to take on the persona of the Siren from The Curse of the Black Spot, which was easier said than done as she didn’t say a single word. To get around this problem, I gave her the personality of Amy Childs from The Only Way Is Essex, which had just started, and proceeded accordingly."
I bought the comic through the first year until it became too expensive mainly for the comic strips which were written by alum from the wilderness years and frequently contained references to Big Finish stories, especially when Alan Barnes was writing.  Mephistopheles Arkadian from the Gallifrey spin-off even turned up in one story.  Bonkers.

GPS Timing Anomalies by Goatchurch

On this second day of heavy rain in the Pyrenees I think I might have the time to catch up some ancient history from all of last week. We waited five hours on El Bosque for the wind to come right, and were then rewarded with this flight with vultures.
These birds came much closer than they ever showed up in the pictures. They fly with hunched shoulders.

Unfortunately the GPS for that flight is inexplicably jagged, so here’s a flight above Teba from a day later where the data is cleaner.



The yellow cube is 1000m on each side for scale from a flight that took off at the point on the frontmost vertical cube edge

Here’s a zoomed in section of the left most section of the path, shown looking down, with 100m XY axes in yellow. The track comes in from the bottom right goes to the top left (against the wind direction), then turns left to make four anticlockwise loops that drift back with the wind

Here’s the track but with points drawn on to show how frequent the samples are (ten times a second). Note that the spacing is tighter when flying upwind towards the left.

The GPS doesn’t come out as very smooth, even though the flight trajectory must have been smooth because the wings are only pushing off air. Sometimes you can get really sharp corners where the GPS suddenly seems to correct itself as if making a phase jump. However, the samples are continuous, which is not something you would get if this was an honest sensor that was actually reporting its raw noise. I therefore suspect that there is a smoothing process going on.

The most common smoothing process is an exponential filter like: yn+1 = yn*0.9 + xn+1*0.1, which has the tendency to delay the signal so that the peaks and troughs occur later than they do in the original measurements.

Let’s see what we can do about detecting this.

The GPS velocity setting
As above, but with the GPS forward velocity vectors drawn in from the positions on the trajectory corresponding to the recorded timestamp.

To get this ability to take velocities and positions at the rate of 10 times a second, the commands I send to the GPS device are as follows:


The first line sets it to a 0.1second cycle, and the second is interpreted as “please send me a GPRMC record every 50*0.1 seconds (ie five seconds), a GPVTG and a GPGGA every 0.1 seconds, and a GPGSA every second.”

These record types hold various overlapping sets of data, none of which are exactly right, which is why I am requesting four different types.

In particular, the velocity record:


decodes to a speed of 0.53kph in the direction of 62.47deg, and the position record:

$GPGGA,064306.590,5323.7234,N,00258.3325,W, 2, 10, 1.00,38.3,M,49.4,M,0000,0000*4A

decodes to the time hours=06 minutes=43 seconds=06.590 at location 53deg23.7234’N 002deg58.3325’W.

Note that the actual date is missing from this record, which is why I’m having to grab the occasional GPRMC record to get it. The GPGSA holds the dilution of precision, which doesn’t seem to relate to the accuracy of the position to be of any use (check this on the El Bosque day).

The velocity is supposed to use the doppler shift to the GPS satelites to get an instantaneous measurement, and so doesn’t depend on measuring the positions and subtracting their differences. This would be more useful for a slower sample rate of, say, once every five seconds. However, at this sample rate we can derive the velocity from the position in the following way:

Dvelocityt = (positiont+d – positiont-d)/(2*d)

The plot is here:
Yellow is the velocity derived from the position, which appears time shifted forwards slightly. Note the big velocity measurement discontinuity on the first loop on the left.

We can quantify this shift by plotting the sum of the square distances between the derived velocity and the measured velocity:

k1 = ziptvsG(DerivedVelocity, [(t+dt, v) for t, v in MeasuredVelocity])
difference = sum((dv – mv).Lensq() for t, dv, mv in k1)/len(k1)
plotpoint(dt, v)

From the graph:
(where the white vertical line is zero) it looks like the measured velocity is a quarter of a second (2.5 units) behind the derived the velocity. If my theory is correct, then it’s subject to more smoothing than the position records, although this is contradicted by the way that the velocity vector has that sharp corner on the second loop.

In all ways, this is the wrong way round, especially when they could be using the velocity vector to direct the position to a more consistent point, in which case it would be ahead.

Just to check this isn’t to do with the data transmission, I’ve looked at the raw data records in the log file, and they come out like this:


ie the velocity records V get logged immediately after the position record Q at a time difference of 0x00874B2D – 0x00874B03 = 42milliseconds, so to be fair the true lag (if the measurements are made simultaneously from the same satellite observation) is more like 200ms, or two GPS sample points.

One would expect, with a hefty calculation and data transmission issue, there to be about a one sample point time shift from reality (whatever reality is) at the maximum cycle speed. However I can’t imagine there would be a buffer of two or four measurements deliberately queuing the outputs systematically.

I reckon that reality comes from the BNO055 absolute orientation accelerometer, which is sensitive enough to encode vibrations. It’s like a microphone where it’s near instantaneous and there can’t be a lag of more than a fraction of a wavelength. No lightspeed to satellites in high orbits to contend with. We can plot the acceleration positions against the GPS signal, like so:

(I’m plotting less than a third of the vectors sampled.) Remember the travel is anticlockwise through the loops, and the accelerations should be pointing in from the trajectory, so there is an even bigger time-lag.

Here is the plot of accelerations derived from the GPS position:

There is plenty of noise here, but we can still try to plot the average square distance error for each timeshift, like so:
This says one should shift the acceleration vectors 0.4seconds forward in time to best match the GPS positions (and their implied acceleration).

We can do the same with the velocity records, which only needs to be differentiated once:

The velocity time shift (in green) is best at 0.6ms, which is consistent to an acceptable error with what we had between the velocity and the position.

Still, about a half second time lag is quite sizeable. My glider is going to move 6 metres in that time period, and if I’m trying to relate this to the edge boundary of a thermal from one of the other sensors, I will need to take account of this.

Speaking of other sensors, what about the barometer?

Funny you should mention that. I hadn’t thought about it until now. It’s probably going to take the rest of the day to code this up, so let’s make a start.

The snippet of flight about with the four loops takes 145 seconds. This is the graph of the barometer (in green) against the GPS altitude (in yellow).

Pressure goes up as altitude goes down. The reason I start making those horizontal loops is because I am in rising air, and this is the only way to stay in it when the alternative is to keep going down until I eventually have to land.

On trying to align the two by factoring linear interpolation to get a scale of alt = (102028.010949 – millibars)/11.172943 produces not a great fit as follows:

Vertical lines are one second intervals. Maybe there is a slippage forward of half a second between those readings and the GPS altitude, but it’ll be hard to quantify unless I get a better match. I ought to also compare it to the vertical acceleration.

The barometer system sure needs some debugging and error checking as its non-standard communication protocol is a bit flaky. It will also require some smoothing and discounting of rogue readings. I wonder if also the presence and orientation of the wing will change the pressure below.

This one is pretty darn hard, so I’ll put it off till later after I’ve caught up on my logbook writeups of more recent flights. Which involves disclosing this brief and terrifying incident:

LPSC 2016: Icy Satellite Science by The Planetary Society

This year’s Lunar and Planetary Science Conference devoted two oral presentation sessions to questions related to icy satellites in our solar system. Jessica Noviello reports back from the conference.

All about BEAM, the space station's new inflatable module launching Friday by The Planetary Society

This Friday, SpaceX plans to launch a Dragon cargo spacecraft to the ISS. Packed inside Dragon's trunk is a new inflatable station module called BEAM, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module.

April 05, 2016

Internal pecking order. by Feeling Listless

Film The Daily Beast has an interview with Chloe Bennett who plays Skye ... sorry ... Daisy ... in MARVEL's Agents of SHIELD. It's hilariously unguarded, mainly talking about the process of trying to get work as an Asian actress in Hollywood, but the more interesting stuff, at least in terms of the internal politics of the MCU is about how the tv series fits within the world of the films. It doesn't:

"I think we’re all on the same page besides them,” Bennet says, sighing at the missed opportunity. “But they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do, and I’m really happy with our little show. We’ve been dealing with the topic of Civil War for a while now—at least, Daisy has. She’s a SHIELD agent but also a human and she’s completely torn."
Bless. Up until now there's been a sense of everything being connected and it's certainly felt that way in the past couple of seasons with the results of Hydra being revealed and the business with the helicarrier. I think "a human" is a mis-transcribing of inhuman incidentally. But it seems there films don't really have much interest in acknowledging the existence of the television series in any particular way which means it'll continue to feel slightly inessential.

It's forever been thus in comics with different creative teams ploughing forward with different storylines featuring the same characters.  The real trick here is the lack of continuity errors.  When something's established in the films it's reflected back on television and the films don't actively go out of their way to openly contradict what's being done on the small screen series.  Contrast this to the Whoniverse where no still has a fucking clue about how to reconcile Torchwood's Miracle Day.

We can all get a bit excited about what The Avengers:Infinity War films are going to look like assuming that it'll be stacked with cameos from across the MCU like some great superhero equivalent of Doctor Who's Journey's End with the SHIELD team wandering through at some point and The Defenders joining the fight the first film perhaps ending with the filmic equivalent of one of those epic splash pages with dozens of heroes fighting dozens of villains in cosmic scale.

But perhaps we should narrow our expectations a bit.  However much we want to see Mockingbird fighting alongside Black Widow or Hawkeye tipping his how towards Jessica Jones, it's probably going to be unlikely.  There's an internal pecking order even to production in the MCU and hierarchy of importance and all television may ever end up doing is reacting to whatever's happening in the films released each year.

What's in a Wardley Map and the need for a cheat sheet. by Simon Wardley

A map has an anchor. In chess, it's the board. In geographical maps it's the compass. In a Wardley map, it's the user need (of course, I'm assuming you've actually described the user journey and know what those needs are).

A map has position (relative to the anchor) and the ability to show movement. In Chess, it's the position of pieces on the board and where they can move to. In geographical maps, it's the position relative to compass setting (northwest of here or in more advanced forms, GPS) and the features that enable or hinder movement (a cliff, a road). In a Wardley map, position is shown through a chain of needs and how visible the component is to the user (the anchor) whilst movement is shown through evolution.

There are many types of pieces on a map. In Chess, well that's obvious. In geographical maps these are landmarks or troops (in combat). In a Wardley map, you have many different types of activities, practices, data and knowledge. 

All of these types in a Wardley map are evolving and co-evolving. The x-axis is just short-hand for evolution and I chose activity as the most useful description. But all of these types evolve through different stages (I to IV) over ubiquity and certainty. This is driven by competition and causes common characteristic changes.

Unfortunately, to see evolution then you have to abolish time and measure over ubiquity vs certainty. This is not adoption vs time (a diffusion curve) which measures diffusion. Diffusion and Evolution are not the same thing but they are related (i.e. evolution consists of many diffusion curves).

Because we have no crystal ball (i.e. you can't measure evolution over time and predict the future accurately) then you have to deal with the certainty axis and that things start of as uncertain. In practice this means you can only accurately map where something WAS once it has become a commodity. To estimate where something IS then you have to use weak signals or discussion between a group familiar with the field. Evolution just shows you the path, the future still remains an uncertainty barrier we can't peak through but we can approximate.

The cheat sheet (more accurately, my cheat sheet) is based upon weak signals for each stage (I to IV) and is broadly applicable across all types (some of the characteristics are specific to a type but it's a good enough approximation).

Once you have a map of your landscape, you can start to learn about common climatic patterns, use it to apply universal doctrine such as removing duplication and bias, use it to communicate and challenge assumptions, use it for context specific gameplay (i.e. strategy) and learning of such, use it to link strategy to operations, use it determine flow, use it for organisation ... in fact, you can do an awful lot with a map.

Four final notes.

1. The only people who can map an industry are those that work in that industry. You have to learn to map and play the game for yourself. By all means you can use consultants to advise on different forms of gameplay (assuming they know any context specific forms) but the only person who can map your environment is ... YOU.

2. No map is "right", it's an approximation and open for challenge. The beauty of drawing a map is that it can be challenged easily. The key to mapping is don't try and create the perfect map but quickly draw the environment and share with others. With practice, you should be able to map a business in a few hours. NB. This means YOU, not someone else.

3. Mapping itself is not "right". These are Babylonian clay tablets for business. Someone will make a better way of mapping. All models are wrong, some are however "useful". Trying to determine strategy or operate a company without understanding your landscape is something that I don't find to be useful.

4. The Wardley Mapping technique is creative commons share alike, it has been for almost a decade. I found it useful, so I gave it away in the hope that others would. 

“She Knew What She Was Doing” by The Leveller

Last month, Sunderland footballer Adam Johnson was sentenced to 6 years in prison for sexual activity with a child. Details emerging from the case included the fact that the victim had just turned 15 when Johnson began grooming her, that Johnson conducted an internet search on the legal age of consent, and that the pair exchanged flirtatious WhatsApp messages after he gave her two signed Sunderland shirts. Johnson’s celebrity status was undoubtedly the primary factor in propelling Johnson’s case into the headlines and public interest, but there remained a secondary interest in the victim: she was a fan of the club and ‘idolized’ Johnson, and had hung around after games in the hope of meeting him. They exchanged 834 WhatsApp messages in two months. She was 15 years old – not 12, or 10, or 8. She looked and acted older – something people told her all the time. These were details which would later be evoked to challenge the girl’s credibility as a victim.

See how the media mourned the ‘promising futures’ of football players who repeatedly sexually assaulted an unconscious young woman in Steubenville, Ohio in 2012

Adolescent female sexuality and agency was a big topic on public media platforms. Katie Hopkins (not the best reflection of our times, although the levels of support her opinions receive might say differently) wrote in her Mail Online column that the victim knew ‘exactly what she was doing’, and questioned the accuracy of defining the 15-year-old as a child. Dr Christian Jessen (of Embarrassing Bodies) joined the debate, tweeting his support for Hopkins’ stance and highlighting the hypocrisy of the legal age of consent being 16 but the age of criminal responsibility being 10. Victoria Coren Mitchell wrote in the Guardian in support of absolutist consent laws in order to protect all minors – ‘we’ve got to define [the age in which a person is considered a child] somehow, and that’s how’.

Katie Hopkins was onto nothing new – we all know many underage adolescents are sexually active, having all been underage adolescents ourselves at some point – but public acknowledgement of this is unusual. That this discussion is being had in light of whether a well-off, well-liked sportsman should receive a lighter sentence (or any sentence at all) is unsurprising. There is a tendency in our society to bemoan the now darkened future of respectable young men with a talent (often sports) who happen also to be convicted rapists – see how national media mourned the ‘promising futures’ of football players who repeatedly sexually assaulted an unconscious young woman in Steubenville, Ohio in 2012, and The Washington Post’s description of how 20-year Brock Turner’s ‘extraordinary yet brief swim career is now tarnished, like a rusting trophy’ (he was found guilty of raping a woman who did not regain consciousness until 3 hours after the attack).

We can’t have a nuanced discussion about this until we publicly acknowledge and accept adolescent sexual agency

In short, the conversation about young female sexual agency is currently centered around how the accountability of older men in rape and sexual assault cases can be diminished, and how the victim can accept more blame for her trauma. This feeds into preexisting narratives in society which posit men as the hapless victims of calculating female temptresses – think of ‘homewreckers ‘and ‘bunny boilers’ as modern day real-life mermaids and sirens – and which wants preventative measures like school dress codes for under-16s and social media censorship of female body parts as a way of keeping men safe from the irresistible allure of women and girls.

But this does not mean that the conversation about young female sexual agency is not one we should be having. There are so many current issues surrounding teenage sexuality that we cannot have a nuanced discussion about it, for young women and men to benefit from, until we publicly acknowledge and accept adolescent sexual agency. Unfortunately, at present, it is only debated in the interest of well-off, well-liked, older males.

50% of young people did not learn from Sex and Relationships Education in school how to get help if they were abused

Nearly half of women aged 16-24 said they wished they’d waited longer before having sex, and were twice as likely to say this if they were under 15 when they lost their virginity. US podcast ‘This American Life’ explored ideas about consent among college freshmen, ultimately concluding that there existed such an adversity among young men to the thought of actively obtaining consent because there lacked a strong dialogue between young men and women about sex in the first place. 2009 research showed that 29% of 13-17 year olds had experienced sexual violence in their relationships. I look back at high school and sixth-form and the situations that happened that now, my adult female friends and I would easily define – rape, sexual assault, abuse, manipulation – but how back then, still trying to find our feet in understanding and participating in relationships, we could only make sense of by accepting and assuming it was normal. PSHE lessons really were no help at all, and we were unlikely to seek help or clarification from adults. It’s painful to imagine that’s how young women are still growing up today, as while it is compulsory that Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) is taught to children 11 years old and upwards, parents can choose to withdraw their children from these sessions and there remains huge gaps in what is being taught to children; the Sex Education Forum released statistics from a study of 2000 young people stating that 50% of young people did not learn from SRE how to get help if they were abused, and more than 4 in 10 had not learned about healthy or abusive relationships. In addition to this, LGBTI children are at an even higher risk of receiving an incomplete SRE.

Having an open, public discussion about young female sexual agency would destigmatize and bring these issues to headlines and educational bodies. Unfortunately, as it is, our society cares less about the long-term physical, mental, emotional and sexual health of teenage women and more about absolving the men who hurt them of blame.



Image: From book cover ‘Lolita’ (1991), picture by Waldemar Świerzy

The post “She Knew What She Was Doing” appeared first on The Leveller.

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Updated using Planet on 2 May 2016, 05:48 AM