Saturday, 28 May 2016

film review: The Martian

This is the film of the book, and is a sufficiently faithful version that I’m going to quote my book review where appropriate.

The third Mars mission has had to evacuate and return home because of a dangerously strong storm. Due to a freak accident, Mark Watney [Matt Damon] is left for dead. But he’s not dead. And now he’s alone on Mars, without enough food, air, or energy to last the several years it would take rescue to arrive. Not that he can call for help. So, as he says, he’s "gonna have to science the shit out of this".

Actually, I disapprove of that phrase. In reality, he’s gonna have to engineer the shit out of this. Which he proceeds to do.

Watney is competent and resourceful, and he does have resources to be resourceful with: all the equipment the crew left behind when they abandoned Mars. Mars keeps throwing problems at him, and he keeps figuring out solutions, knowing that the first problem he can’t solve will kill him for sure.

The film is great. It departs from the book in necessary ways: many subplots are removed, reducing the complexity, but keeping the overall story. They also cut my favourite joke, about Mexican food, but there’s loads of snappy repartee. The cuts make Watney’s task seem easier and more linear, and the sheer duration seems compressed, but he still has to struggle, growing his food, making his water, making his air, transporting himself, coping with being alone. And he’s not the only one who is competent: everyone is competent. Even the earth-bound NASA bureaucrats are competent. Even when they make seemingly poor decisions, it’s for what they think are the right reasons, to protect the overall vision, or the returning crew, or something larger than themselves. Okay, this is a massive helping of competence porn, but, hey, it makes such a refreshing change from the standard “let’s have the character make yet another silly decision just to move the plot along”.

Inner dialogue from the book has to get translated into video diary entries and visuals, and works well, for the most part. Mars is indeed The Red Planet, bleak and inhospitable, but beautiful. My main technical gripe is the gravity. Mars has one third Earth gravity (or just twice the moon’s gravity), which would affect Watney’s movements. This could be used to advantage, explaining how he can do all that heavy manual labour on a reduced calorie potato diet, but this Mars has earth gravity. But there’s one point which really jarred for me. There are some parallel scenes, where the engineers back on earth are mocking up solutions, and Watney is performing these on Mars. These actually work really well, as the slick Earth-bound solutions are contrasted with Watney’s duct-taped improvised versions. But at one point, Watney has to cut a hole in the roof of the rover. We see the two versions: earth engineer drills a load of holes; Watney drills a load of holes; earth engineer attempts to break through and fails; Watney attempts to break through and fails; earth engineer bashes on the panel and falls through; Watney bashes on the panel and falls through. But gravity is only one third as strong on Mars; Watney’s bashing would not have had the same effect. Also, the point of doing things on earth first (rather than actually in parallel) is to check the procedures will work and will be safe: that fall would not be safe when performed in a pressure suit in the near-vacuum of Mars’ atmosphere. So there was an opportunity to do something clever here, but it was missed for the laugh of the parallel falls.

However, that’s a really geeky complaint, given the rest of the film. There are several changes from the book, and of course there are further technical mistakes, but overall, it's one of the most faithful adaptations from a novel to screen that I’ve seen. If you enjoyed the book, you will enjoy the film. Read the book first, then watch the film for the visuals and great translation; or watch the film first, then read the book for the subplots.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Justin Bieber and Beyonce are not aliens

Prof Angela Saase
On Wednesday I was down in London, for the 2016 Hopper Colloquium, and the 6th annual Karen Spärck Jones lecture. This year, the lecture was by Professor Angela Saase, Director of the UK Research Institute in Science of Cyber Security, speaking on the parlous state of computer security.

Like the previous one of these lectures I attended, this was entertaining, informative, and thought provoking.  In a nutshell: there is a lot known about how to get good computer security; most developers and their companies ignore it, and are ignorant of it.

Take passwords.  We all know that a long strong password, frequently changed, makes for good password security, right?  Wrong!  What is actually needed is a password that the user can remember, changed only when suspicious activity has been spotted, and protected via technological defence in depth.

Unusable security, including multiple long complex changing passwords, is bad security.  If your product is unusable, users will go elsewhere.  If they can’t go elsewhere (you are the only provider, or, more likely, everywhere else is just as bad), they will circumvent the process, thereby making the system less secure overall.  If they can’t circumvent, their productivity will simply plummet.

As Saase puts it: Users are Not the Enemy.  Usability is not a luxury, to be grudgingly added in when the call centres are groaning under the weight of frustrated callers.  Apparently a major company had a call centre of 100 people doing nothing but reset passwords, and it is not alone.  Talk about productivity plummeting!

The most eye-opening part of the talk was when Saase described a study of three major companies, who had volunteered to be studied because they had good processes.  In summary, they actually had: no criteria for usability; no user involvement; no usability testing; little or no security testing; no understanding of the impact of the design on productivity or sales; internal security policies violated by their own developers; …

It’s not that usability insights are new.  In 1883,  Auguste Kerckhoffs published six principles for secure cryptography; three are about usability!

The solution?  Don’t push the risks onto the users.  Engage with them.  Use technology to provide defence in depth.  Implement only provably effective security policies.  And most of all, convince the developers and their managers that usability is not a luxury: it is an essential security requirement!

Oh, and this post title?  Well, one of the talks at the Hopper Colloquium was about the relationship between post titles and click-throughs. The result: more click-throughs when the title includes famous people (these two, whoever they may be, were given as examples), and include a negative.  Let’s see how it works.

Okay, okay.  Click-bait.  I won’t do it again!

Monday, 23 May 2016

It was 20 years ago today...

… that my first dated item appeared on my website: a review of Clannad’s 1996 tour at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, attended a week earlier.

Back in 1995 I was working for Logica UK, and they started allowing staff to have webspace.  I took up their offer, and decided to start a review site, to learn about the web (it was new in those days!), and to keep an online review journal.  I fiddled about with the pages for a while, adding a few reviews, then, on 23 May 1996, I started date-stamping them.

To date, I have 434 non-fiction book reviews, 844 science fiction reviews, and 75 other fiction reviews: an average of 5-6 a month for those twenty years.  I also have nearly 200 SF film reviews, and over 70 SF TV show reviews.

When I moved to the University of York in 2002, I took my website with me, and it continued to grow.  Being an academic, I also use it to keep a respository of my publications; there are about 240 of those now.

What does the past look like?  The oldest backup I can find is from October 1999 (on a CD: remember them?), when my front page looked like:

October 1999 front page

Today, it looks like:

May 2016 front page

In the intervening time, I have modified the site to use CSS.  But, actually, there hasn’t been a major change to the structure, just additional content.

So, check back in 2036 for the next 20 year update…

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Volvo 1; pheasant 0

a different pheasant, but just as suicidal
While I was driving home down the A1 yesterday evening, a pheasant walked right out in front of me, and so I hit it.  I know enough not to swerve in these circumstances (there were other cars around me, so swerving could have caused a nasty accident), but it wasn’t a fun thing to happen at 70mph, for me, or for the pheasant.

There was no big cloud of feathers visible in my rear view mirror, unlike the last time this happened.  I continued for about a mile to the next service station, and pulled into their car park, to assess the damage.  I looked at the radiator grille, and saw a pheasant’s head behind it, and a large tail feather sticking out. Great.

I tried to open the bonnet, but failed.  It seemed stuck.  I couldn’t tell if the car was safe to drive, or if the rest of the pheasant was doing something nasty in there.  So I phoned RAC Accident (mobile phones make life so much easier), and said I’d hit a pheasant, and didn’t know if the car was safe to drive.  They put me through to RAC Breakdown.  I explained again.  They said I needed to speak to RAC Accident.  I said I’d come from there.  They checked: yes, it counted as an accident, not a breakdown.  I was told that my “RAC accident and breakdown” cover only covers breakdowns; although the cover says “We’ll rescue you if you’re involved in an accident”, I was told this rescue would cost me a £165 callout charge.  Hmm.  I said I’d try another option first.

So I phoned Volvo Assistance, which I get as a complimentary deal because I pay a lot for the car to be serviced at an official Volvo dealer, which helps maintain its resale value.  They were much more helpful.  Although the assistance usually only covers a maximum 50 mile trip to home or a dealership (I was 75 miles from home at the time), because it was a Friday evening, they said they would take me home if necessary.  A breakdown truck would be with me within the hour.

The breakdown truck arrived within 15 minutes, actually; he’d been nearby on the road when the call came in.  He got out of his truck and looked at the head-and-feather combo in my radiator grille.  He tried to open the bonnet, struggled a while (somewhat to my relief, as I didn’t feel so stupid at not managing it myself), but eventually managed.  My sort of Volvo has a large gap between the radiator grille and the radiator itself; this was currently full of very dead pheasant.

The pheasant had smashed straight through the grille, breaking it and the surrounding fascia (which had buckled up, making it harder to open the bonnet), but was stopped by the rather more substantial radiator itself.  The breakdown guy removed the pheasant, in a cloud of feathers, to the amazement/amusement of a couple of other people in the car park.  He inspected the radiator, and said it was a bit dented (and covered in feathers), but still whole. He had me start up the car, and poked around to check there were no problems: the radiator didn’t start leaking or anything, and there appeared to be no other damage to working parts. He declared the car safe to drive.

I offered him the pheasant, but he declined.  He completed some paperwork, I signed a form, and off he went.  I continued on my way too (also declining to take the pheasant), and arrive home safely, although somewhat later than planned.

After I had been on the road again for about ten minutes, I realised that I am definitely not a digital native.  I took no photos of the pheasant, either inside the engine, or after it had been removed; it never occurred to me, despite me having my phone in my pocket.  I did take a photo of the grille this morning, though:

broken fascia, smashed grille, and internal feathers: there goes my no claims bonus.

So, Volvo (nearly) 1; pheasant 0.  Also, Volvo 1; RAC 0.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

attempted murder

[if you don’t get it, here’s a clue]

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Monday, 16 May 2016

minor major

I really love listening to music.  But I can’t play an instrument, or sing in tune.  In fact, in school my music teacher thought I must be tone deaf, so flat was my “singing”.  They decided I wasn’t:  I can identify tunes and songs.

Lately however, I’ve begun to wonder.  There’s this thing about redoing tunes from major to minor key, or vice versa.  The comments always say, “that’s weird”, “that’s horrible”, or even, “that’s unrecognisable”.  Hmm.  I’d say, “that sounds a little different from usual; is it a different recording?”

Check out the original Google+ post for the interesting comments on this.

For all my social networking posts, see my Google+ page

Friday, 13 May 2016

magentic rolling

Magnets are cool :-)

I particularly like the “action at a distance” moves near the end.

[via BoingBoing]

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Thursday, 12 May 2016

my lifestyle

(well, more like one copy of each title, actually...)

[via Allie Brosch, and X All The Y Meme Generator]

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Wednesday, 11 May 2016

foot binding, 21st century style

Make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work.

Why isn’t it already illegal!  Requiring someone to potentially cripple themselves?  WTF?  I’ve signed!  What century is this, again?

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Tuesday, 10 May 2016

red in claw

Sparrowhawks are beautiful.  But watching one kill a blackbird in our garden this morning was not so pleasant.

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Monday, 9 May 2016

Mercury transit glorious Monday

We observed the transit of Mercury today.

Tools included: a Meade ETX125 telescope (with a sun filter!); the blue cardboard Lightline Solar Projector originally bought for observing the 1999 total eclipse; and a Canon EOS 20D SLR camera with a 100-400mm zoom lens (at around the 350mm setting) (and a sun filter!), shown in use.  The water butt and hose pipe were not essential for this project.

Although we (just) saw the transit with the Solar Projector, we got no good photographs that way.  Below are some of the better photographs; the actual viewing with Mark One Eyeball (through the relevant devices) was much more spectacular.  Mercury was obvious a disc, and very black compared to the sunspot.  And there was lots of great structure in the big sunspot, too.  Observing for real is qualitatively different from watching it on TV.

12:29:33 BST.  Unretouched photo, taken using a Galaxy S5 smart phone camera, through the 26mm eyepiece of the telescope (with a sun filter!).  Mercury is the small dot on the far right; the splotch is a sunspot. (The picture is "upside down" because telescope).  This snap worked: all subsequent ones are much too over-exposed and nothing can be seen.

13:04:51 BST.  Digital noise removal, but no other manipulation; photos taken with the SLR camera and 350mm lens, ISO1600, f/5.6, 1/3200sec exposure (through a sun filter!).  Mercury is the small dot on the far left. (The picture is the right way up, because camera).

15:05:31 BST.  Digital noise removal, but no other manipulation; photos taken with the SLR camera and 340mm lens, ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/1000sec exposure (through a sun filter!).  Mercury is the small dot on the mid left.

We were very careful with the sun filters on the optics.  However, I think today may be the first time I’ve got sunburnt while observing!

(The page title is a variation of the title of our Venus transit page.)

Thursday, 5 May 2016

different from what?

I’m writing an introductory piece on emergent properties.  My notes of things to include has the wonderful phrase “Moire is different”.

In typo veritas.

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Tuesday, 3 May 2016