Saturday, 20 May 2017

book review: Stiletto

Daniel O’Malley.
Head of Zeus. 2016

Stiletto starts off where The Rook ends: Rook Myfanwy Thomas and the Checquy have declared a truce with Graaf van Suchtlen and the Grafters, and they have started the delicate process of working together. But not only are there centuries of well-stoked fear and suspicion on both sides impeding progress, there is a hidden faction actively out to sabotage the deal.

The bulk of the book alternates the viewpoint between Felicity Clements, a Chequay Pawn with aspirations to be a warrior Barghest, and Odette Leliefeld, a high ranking Grafter. After some typical Checquy-style horrors, Felicity is assigned as Odette’s bodyguard. Neither will be the same again.

I am slightly disappointed that this time round we don’t get Myfanwy’s viewpoint, except in a few scenes. And there is one scene from her point of view that doesn’t ring true for me. Myfanwy is at the Races investigating a gruesome murder, when she bumps into her brother Jonathan, and agrees to go up to his box to meet his friends later. After he leaves, she is attacked. The plot promptly proceeds to forget everything about this promised visit. Poor Jonathan, he must be worried sick!

Apart from this minor plot oversight (or maybe it is something incredibly subtle that will come back to haunt her later?) we get to see Myfanwy as others see her, in all her fearsome sarcastic efficiency. We are still in the wonderfully bizarre, dangerous, gross, complicated, surreal world of the Chequay, as two groups of people struggle to overcome perfectly understandable hatred and fear of each other, whilst surrounded by extraordinary and incomprehensible goings-on.

This is a great second book in the series. I hope it won’t be a four year wait for the third one! (There is going to be a third one, is there?)

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Semantic closure

Our paper “Semantic closure demonstrated by the evolution of a universal constructor architecture in an artificial chemistry” has just been published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.  We submitted in December, it was accepted after revision on 24 April, and appeared online yesterday! The advantages of web-based publishing.

Our “media friendly” summary is:
The ‘meaning’ of DNA lies in the act of translating a DNA sequence into a protein sequence. The mapping of DNA to proteins is identical in nearly all species, but some species have evolved alternative mappings. A new computer model uses an artificial chemistry to investigate evolutionary changes in these mappings, where the translating apparatus is encoded in the DNA and governs its own translation. As well as reproducing the known evolutionary mechanism of changing the meaning of DNA, the model predicts a novel mechanism for changing the mapping in biology that is not detectable by phylogenetic DNA sequence analysis.
Our slightly less friendly paper abstract is:
Abstract: We present a novel stringmol-based artificial chemistry system modelled on the universal constructor architecture (UCA) first explored by von Neumann. In a UCA, machines interact with an abstract description of themselves to replicate by copying the abstract description and constructing the machines that the abstract description encodes. DNA-based replication follows this architecture, with DNA being the abstract description, the polymerase being the copier, and the ribosome being the principal machine in expressing what is encoded on the DNA. This architecture is semantically closed as the machine that defines what the abstract description means is itself encoded on that abstract description.We present a series of experiments with the stringmol UCA that show the evolution of the meaning of genomic material, allowing the concept of semantic closure and transitions between semantically closed states to be elucidated in the light of concrete examples. We present results where, for the first time in an in silico system, simultaneous evolution of the genomic material, copier and constructor of a UCA, giving rise to viable offspring.
This is one of the key findings:

Figure 6. Semantic change without mutation of the genome.
Genome G0 (built in our artificial chemistry StringMol) encodes a bunch of “machines”, including E0.  E0 reads G0 and expresses the machines encoded on it.  The expression processes can make mistakes: one such mistake meant that E0 expressed E1 instead of another E0.  This “mutant” machine E1 then expressed E2 (without error).  And then E2 expressed itself, again without error. So the meaning of that part of the genome where the expressor is encoded has changed from E0 to E2.  All without the genome changing.  Which is cool.

The paper is open access and can be found at doi:10.1098/rsif.2016.1033.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

frog's head

A frog sunning itself amid our pond weed:

Sunday, 14 May 2017

book review: The Slow Professor

Maggie Berg, Barbara K. Seeber.
The Slow Professor: challenging the culture of speed in the academy.
University of Toronto Press. 2016

There is an external view of academics as ivory tower effete dilettantes who spend all their time swanning around, thinking big thoughts, or just kicking back during the long vacations. There’s no real work involved, is there?

Then there is the reality: ever increasing bureaucracy, more scrabbling for more students, more worrying about “student feedback”, more scrabbling for ever reducing (per capita) research funding, more pressure to publish. I spent nearly two decades in industry, and have spent over a decade in academia: I can say with conviction that academia is much harder work and longer hours.

Bosses will say, but that’s because academia is vocational: you work so hard because you enjoy it. Well, we enjoy some of it, maybe even most of it, which is more than many people can say. But also if we don’t work so hard, we fall behind harder working peers, we don’t get promoted, we don’t get the research funding, we get in a death spiral. It’s a classic tragedy of the commons. And when we claim we are stressed because we have too much work to do, we are sent on time management courses (which we have no time for), rather than having workload reduced.

This thought-provoking little book (a mere 90 pages of text, to be digestible by the hurried academic, yet sufficiently dense with references to be academically rigorous), analyses the problem, and advocates slowing down, and savouring, the academic life. This is by explicit analogy with Slow Food and as a part of the Slow Movement in general. There are chapters on teaching, and research, and, crucial for academic learning, on collegiality. The call is for individual researchers to regain a sense of agency in the face of overpowering bureaucracy.

The authors write from the perspective of social scientists, but the findings and comments are equally applicable to other disciplines. The book documents much evidence of the problems, and suggests some approaches to mitigate these:
[p59] What does “time for the self” mean in the context of scholarship? For me, it means a shift from the dominant view of time as linear and quantifiable to time as a process of becoming. That is, rather than thinking of time as an accumulation of “lines on the CV” …, I am trying to think of time as an unfolding of who I am as a thinking being. Broadly speaking, I am trying to shift the focus from the product (the book, the article, the presentation) to the process of developing my understanding. This is not to say that books and articles and presentations don’t get written (although there may be fewer of them), but my experience of writing them changes in the sense that shifting my focus in this way eases some of the time pressure. I can keep at the back of my mind Readings’s question, which applies to our students as much as it does to us: “How long does it take to become educated?” … We tend to think of time as spent and gone. However, thinking of time as “constitutive, a becoming of what has not been before” … connects us to the scholarship that we do and goes against the corporate model.
How well this will go down with that “overpowering bureaucracy” remains to be seen. The issue with bureaucrats is they focus on those outputs, on those products, (presumably) because those are easy to measure, to count, to quantify. Students are to be assessed against learning outcomes: have they learned X, Y, Z? Yet students should grow and learn and change, through a process of becoming educated to think, and gaining meta-skills that can be adapted in a changing world. Research is to be assessed by publication and impact: how many journal papers and books? Yet researchers should grow and learn and change, through a process of reflection, and thinking, and experimenting. With much of academia, both teaching and research, most of the value lies in this process of becoming, hard to measure, even invisible in some cases. How much work are you really doing when reading a book, or staring at a screen, or just staring into space, thinking? Where’s the output, the result, the evidence of your work?

Learning and discovering and critiquing and thinking, like the rest of life, is a verb, not a noun.

I must read more about this Slow Movement. If I can find the time.

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Thursday, 11 May 2017

April foolish grammar

And following up on bad grammar, I just received this email:
From 1st April 2017 average water and sewerage charges in our region will be rising in line with inflation. This means Yorkshire Water bills will remain some of the lowest in the country.
I fail to follow the implication as stated.  Surely that should read:
From 1st April 2017 average water and sewerage charges in our region will be rising in line with inflation. Despite this, Yorkshire Water bills will remain some of the lowest in the country.

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Wednesday, 10 May 2017

from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense

Geoffrey Pullum fulminates yet again on the topic of Strunk and White.
50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice 
“Keep related words together” is further explained in these terms: “The subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not, as a rule, be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning.” That is a negative passive, containing an adjective, with the subject separated from the principal verb by a phrase (“as a rule”) that could easily have been transferred to the beginning. Another quadruple violation.

[h/t BoingBoing]

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Sunday, 7 May 2017

sequestering carbon, several books at a time LXX

The latest batch:

A couple of these were bought from the self-published/small publisher authors at Eastercon.

Friday, 5 May 2017

spam spam spam spam

I get email:
We are delighted to inform you that the Journal of Molecular and Applied Bioanalysis is a newly launched journal that aims to disseminate quality research and innovative ideas to the scientific community without any barrier.

We have read your article entitled “Programming Unconventional Computers: Dynamics, Development, Self-Reference”. We have found it really impressive. We request you to kindly contribute in the inaugural issue of the journal. We truly believe that your article will be benefit for the journal. You can submit an article in the form of Research, Review, short commentary, Clinical case study, Perspective, opinion, commentary and Book review etc. on or before 31st May 2017.
I am usually pleased when someone has read a paper of mine, especially if they find it “really impressive”.  However, I’m not so pleased if they think it is in any way even remotely connected with the topic of the stated journal.

Maybe, just maybe, they didn’t actually read it after all?

Maybe, just maybe, this is a newly launched spam journal?

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Thursday, 4 May 2017

David Runciman's review of Rosa Price's biography of Theresa May

 Fascinating book review – or rather, primer on the UK’s PM.
Do your homework 
William Hague promoted her to shadow secretary of state for education, a high-profile position for a newcomer but also traditionally a department that the Tories felt suited a female touch. The fact that Thatcher had been there before her didn’t mean the Tory high command was thinking of May as a future leader. It meant it was thinking of her as another woman. 
What is clear is that Osborne had little idea how much she loathed him. He had thought that their previous disputes were just part of the cut and thrust of high politics and easily put behind them. That’s precisely what she loathed about him. 
The public tends to see Johnson as the ultimate clown politician, all stunts and no substance. That’s not the way May sees it. For her it was Cameron, Osborne and Gove who were fundamentally unserious, because they were the ones who made promises they couldn’t keep. Johnson had the advantage of never having his promises believed in the first place. 
As so often in politics, the roles seem to have been handed out the wrong way round. May would have been a far better person than Cameron or Osborne to lead the Remain campaign, and had she done so Britain would almost certainly still be in the EU. But either Cameron or Osborne might do a far better job at negotiating Britain’s departure. What is the Brexit negotiation if not a game? If May is determined to treat it as something else, it could end badly for everyone involved.

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Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Gödel's co-authors

Copy-editor changed “Hofstadter, in his seminal book Gödel, Escher, Bach” to “Hofstadter, in his seminal book Gödel et al


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Monday, 1 May 2017

Cavalier amateurism

The Brexit dinner: delusion at every course 
stepping back from the detail, perhaps the most shocking aspect of this sorry affair is the cavalier attitude shown by May and Davis: a caricature of Brexiteer amateurism.

[via Danny Yee's blog]

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Saturday, 22 April 2017

free from coal

No coal was burnt to make electricity in the UK yesterday:
First coal-free day in Britain since Industrial Revolution 
Friday is thought to be the first time the nation has not used coal to generate electricity since the world’s first centralised public coal-fired generator opened in 1882, at Holborn Viaduct in London. 
Cordi O’Hara of the National Grid said: "To have the first working day without coal since the start of the industrial revolution is a watershed moment in how our energy system is changing.
I think you’ll find that the industrial revolution started somewhat earlier than 1882, however.
half of British energy on Friday came from natural gas, with about a quarter coming from nuclear plants
Burning natural gas isn’t exactly carbon neutral, either.

Given Friday was cloudy where we were, we actually used a small amount of grid electricity.  It was much sunnier earlier in the week.  On Friday, our solar panels generated a mere 12.7 kWh, while on Wednesday they generated 51.4 kWh.  I assume overall demand is lower on a Friday.

Update 6 May 2017: I see the BBC page has removed its reference to the Industrial Revolution.

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Monday, 17 April 2017

Innominate Eastercon - Monday

Our final day at the Eastercon, with only three events we wanted to go to – so we spent a lot of time chatting to friends, plus a quick walk round the lake to the retail outlet in search of a new teapot (we failed).

First was an illustrated talk on Science Fictional Pub Signs.  Due to technical difficulties the pictures weren’t available until well into the talk.  The presenter did a sterling job of presenting without slides, then rapidly re-presenting once the slides appeared.  The signs were mostly fantasy rather than SF, such as Mermaid, Angel, and Unicorn, but there was one nice one, Vulcan, depicting the Roman god of fire and a bomber and Leonard Nimoy.  Some of the signs are double-sided, with a different picture on each side.  Interesting fact for the day: up to the 18th century, the signs were getting bigger and bigger, then one collapsed and killed four people, and so they were restricted to their current size.

Next was a presentation by Dr Amy Chambers on Prospecting Futures and Expert SF Readers.  This was about a current academic research project Unsettling Scientific Stories, which I first heard about when I was on the (Don’t) Ask the Scientist panel with Amy at last year’s Eastercon.  Amy talked about how readers can engage with multiple story worlds, keeping them separate (echoing Will Tattersdill’s dinosaur talk on Friday).  The engagement is with the entire storyworld, built up from individual stories and from other inputs, so each actual storyworld is personal to the reader [which might help explain disagreements about how interesting various worlds actually are].  For example, Bladerunner (set in 2019!) is an adaptation of the storyworld, rather than of the novel, and it is a hyper-detailed storyworld.  Interesting discussion ensued.  For example, the term “expert” reader put off many in the audience: we might consider ourselves experienced, possibly even skilled, but probably not expert.  If you want to get involved in the research, as an experienced reader, you can start by filling in the quick survey on the project website.  And there’s going to be a 3-day academic conference in York immediately before Follycon (in nearby Harrogate) next year, to present the project’s findings.

The final event of the con that we attended was Nicholas Jackson’s now almost obligatory talk on some fascinating aspect of mathematics.  [Maybe he should entitle the series Serious Mathematical Talks or something?]  This year his talk was on Mathematics and Language, enlivened as usual by anecdotes (like the head of a university maths department telling a visitor “any other way of caring for these people would be more expensive”), mathematical jokes ( “I used to say that I can still think in a normal way, but then I realised that ‘normal’ means ‘at right angles’”), and historical details (with jokes, like a slide titled Galileo Galilei (Galilis, Galilis, Galilorum) – which is apparently an Eddie Izzard joke).  The language of mathematics is like a Matryoshka doll of concepts: you can keep unpacking definitions, illustrated first by defining a group, defining the terms used to define a group, defining the terms used to define the terms...  A mathematician needs to internalise, to grok, each level, which can then be used as building blocks for higher level concepts.  So we end up with things like “a quantum group is a quasitriangular Hopf algebra”, where “a Hopf algebra is a bialgebra with an antipode”, and so on.  Oh, and a quantum group is not really a group, and not especially quantum; but then a peanut isn’t a pea and isn’t really a nut.  The talk moved on to notation, including the Kauffman Bracket for calculating properties of knots, and then “generalised abstract nonsense” (category theory), by which point most of the audience, myself included, were totally lost, but happy to be along for the ride.  It concluded with a description of technical vocabulary, and how a couple of mathematicians came to grief in an airport when they were discussing ”blowing up points on a plane”.  [My own favourite example is the physics phrase "the moment of a couple in a field".]

calculating with Kauffman Brackets

Then it was off to drive home.  We tried stopping at a couple of places for dinner, but they had each shut early.  Clearly, the hordes of people all travelling home on a Bank Holiday are not going to want to eat.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Innominate Eastercon - Sunday

Sunday at Eastercon: the busiest day, with eight different events!

the garage of the future?
First was a panel on Biohacking, defined as “amateur biological science and body modification”.  Of course, some body mods already exist for medical purposes: pacemakers, insulin pumps, contraceptive implants, …  The panellists included academic biologists and medical researcher. Quizzed about their “dream body mod”, their answers ranged from chloroplasts (they would be green, would need to eat less, and would have an excuse to stay out in the sun), enhanced vision (telescopic eyes for bird watching, microscope eyes for work), breathing underwater, and wifi connection directly in the brain.Social implications of these could be interesting: wifi would make pub arguments more complex, and might have a short term effect on exams (exam halls with wifi blockers) and a longer term effect (questions change to how well you can look things up).  And microscope eyes would be bad for germophobes. On the amateur biology side, it was again noted that it is now possible to run a microbiology lab in your garage.  There is a lot of good kit on eBay, from labs that have shut down due to loss of funding.  Some things are easy, but when you start trying to produce new things, there will still be issues with contamination and variability.  As the kit becomes cheaper, more small companies could set up producing designer meds, and more small companies could set up to analyse the purity of such meds.

Then was a change of scope, from inner space to outer space, with the panel strangely titled Seven New Planets! Squeeeee, about the seven “terrestrial” planets recently discovered orbiting red dwarf TRAPPIST-1.  (Moderator Nicholas Jackson dryly observed that “squeeee” was not a word he tended to use himself.)  The panellists included biologists and astrophysicists.  Conversation ranged over the physical characteristics of the planets, to the psychology of space exploration.

Next was a panel on Expanding Artificial Intelligence: is it already here, or will it never arrive?  Panellists included people interested in the legal and ethical implications of AI, in trying to spot AIs being used for trading, and in processing big data using machine learning.  A small amount of time was spent discussing how it is not easy to even define AI.  It was also noted that a fair number of human posters on Twitter are indistinguishable from trash bots: these people fail the Turing Test!  Will Asimov’s Three Laws be needed for cases like autonomous cars?  [Personally, I think any AI that truly followed the second clause of the First Law – “or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm” – would be useless for its designed purpose, as it would immediately be off to relieve Third World hunger, cure cancer, or whatever, or become a gibbering wreck as it realised it couldn’t do all of this.]  SF has become fact: we all walk around with a device that is both a Star Trek communicator and the HHGTTG.  But there is still a huge way to go to a device that can intelligently recognise images (even just cats are hard), and recognise speech, and move and manipulate the environment, and …  Maybe the right way to go is hybrid intelligences: us, plus our super-smart phones.

Pat Cadigan fighting on
Pat Cadigan’s Guest of Honour talk was an hilarious romp through the two times she died (once as a small child, once after anaphylactic shock brought on by penicillin), and her current two-and-a-half years into a two year prognosis for terminal uterine cancer.  It was hilarious: trust me, you had to be there (and it explains the T-shirt).  From all this, she has learned that “you might not be able to cure it, but you can treat it”.  She exhorted us: “don’t hate your life”: even if you can’t make it perfect, you can change it for the better. Fandom’s reputation for monomania can be summed up by one incident from this talk: Pat’s the anaphylactic shock story included a part where she, while dazedly waiting at home for help, decided she needed to get a book to read in the emergency room, so crawled to the bookshelf to select one; one audience member asked, “what was the book?”

The panel on You Want A Revolution? I Want A Revelation! complemented yesterday’s BSFA talk on Revolutions and Revelations in Hamilton, discussing incidents in SF, from Star Wars to The Hunger Games, from Orwell to the graphic novel series Saga.  Revolution needs a change in thought; the revelation gives the reason for needing that change, that things can be different.  Real revolutions need a narrative, and sometimes fiction can provide that narrative, such as the relationship between Braveheart and Scottish Nationalism.  Even bad art can inspire: “I don’t need accuracy to be emotionally inspired”.  However, revolutionary fiction can often have an undercurrent of small-c conservatism: the protagonist is special for some reason, and the fight is to return to the status quo.  And the metaphors need to work: the X-Men may be a minority, but their mutations make them physically dangerous in a way that being gay/black/female does not.

Simon Bradshaw, RAF engineer turned lawyer, and long term con-goer, gave a fascinating talk on Vorkosigan’s Law: Legal Concepts from an Imagined Universe.  He analysed several incidents from Bujold’s series, ostensibly to pick apart the legal system of Barrayar, but actually to educate us in aspects of English law.  His talk was illustrated with some interesting real life cases and laws: the snail in the ginger beer bought by a friend, divorce law, the Human Fertilisation Act, Murray Pringle and inheritance law, the Lord Chancellor and land rights over Grand Junction Canal, General Pinochet’s extradition hearings, and more, all linked to analogous events in the science fictional series.  Fascinating.

The final panel of the day was In Search of Optimistic SF.  Everything seems to be grimdark or dystopian: where is a better future depicted?  It is hard to believe there’s a future at all! Bad things can happen, yet the underlying tale be optimistic, to have a sense of hope: it needs a belief that things can get better, and that there are things we can do to make those things better.  [Shades of Cadigan’s GoH talk here.]  Even a post-apocalyptic story can do this: Station 11 argues that survival alone is not enough, there needs to be more.  But as SF has upscaled timescales and distances, it has upscaled villainy: the psychopathic plutocrat who kills millions to hide the kidnap of the plot token.  Yet upscaling the villainy runs the risk of normalising these atrocities.  Stories help us construct our world – what we believe possible, who we are, where we are going – they provide vision and imagination, and so authors have a responsibility.  Real life good news stories, such as scientific and medical advances, are not very dramatic, because they are collective efforts: these don’t fit our conventional narrative structures.  There are three main classes of SF: rejecting the other, embracing the other, becoming the other.  The first could be optimistic if it is about maintaining community, not being engulfed by a larger, less fair society; the other two are more optimistic forms.  SF can have a special passport to saying things other genres can’t – but there’s a time to be influential: 1984 inoculated society to some degree … but only for a while.  Writers and stories influential in their time – Zenna Henderson, Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, Delany’s Dhalgren, … –  can be sidelined, as later works (eg cyberpunk) argue only against the big writers of the time (Heinlein, Niven etc).

The final event of the evening was the Thomas Bloch and Pauline Haas Recital. featuring an Ondes Martenot, a cristal Baschet, a glass harmonica, oh, and a harp.  The Ondes Martenot sounded like something the early BBC Radiophonic Workshop might have invented, and that might have inspired The Clangers sound effects.  The cristal Baschet sounded like a bull in a scrap metal shop.  The glass harmonica sounded like someone playing a load of wine glasses. Okay, I’m not a modern music aficionado.

Thomas Bloch on the cristal Baschet 

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Innominate Eastercon - Saturday

To start our Saturday at Eastercon, we visited the Art Show and the Dealers’ Room.  It is noticable how over the years there is a higher proportion of tables in the Dealers’ Room selling various artefacts—clothing, jewelry, models, etc—rather than books.  We also assured the Helsinki and Follycon tables that we were already members, and bought a pre-supporting membership for Dublin’s 2019 worldcon bid.

The first event was the BSFA lecture, an annual talk about “ideas of interest to SF fans, but not SF”.  These have been uniformly brilliant, but I was concerned about this one, as it was about Revolutions and Revelations in Hamilton, and I haven’t seen Hamilton the musical, and didn’t know much about it, not even that it was hip hop, or that it casts across race and, sometimes, gender.  [Yes, I do live under a rock, it seems.]  I needn’t have worried, prior knowledge was not a requirement, and Dr Sarah Whitfield gave a excellent presentation: informative, funny, and thought-provoking.  The talk included several YouTube clips, demonstrating how the work follows traditional musical theatre structures, such as the I Want song—illustrated with a clip from the Buffy musical episode unexpectedly accompanied by an audience sing-along—and also references many earlier hip hop songs.  In addition to lauding the staggering success of Hamilton, Whitfield was also careful to point out some of its shortcomings: its minimal coverage of Hamilton’s bisexual reputation; its “whitewashed” version of history, ignoring the contribution of people of colour at the time; the fact that it being lauded as “the most diverse musical ever” wipes out the extraordinary racism of Broadway and the history of PoC in early musical theatre.  This layered history, combining the historical events being depicted and the history of the medium in which they are depicted, provided a nice parallel with Will Tattersdill’s talk on dinosaurs the previous day.

Next off to Colin Harris’ Guest of Honour talk about his Life in Pictures: how he became an SF art collector, and his role in various SF conventions.

The panel Timeless Speculative Technology. Or Not discussed when tech in SF becomes outdated, and how to write about the near future without running into problems.  There are parodies that describe real life as if it were SF: how you walk up to a door, press a lever, push to open, and so on.  [I was tempted after this to write a parody of hotel breakfast buffet tech, such as how if one passes a slice of bread through the provided bread warmer multiple times, it eventually gains a gently singed surface.]  Tech should not be over-described – it should be real and almost invisibly embedded in the culture – but should also be somehow dreamlike, to evoke a different feel. It is easier to predict tech than its knock-on consequences: it is easier to predict the car than the traffic jam, and once you have predicted the ship, remember that there is now the possibility of shipwreck.  In Galaxy Quest the aliens had to reverse engineer the tech from what the actors were doing.  Computers are difficult for visual drama: hacking into a bank, doing taxes, and writing a love letter all look exactly the same.  MS-Word has the wrong metaphor, of a giant scroll: it encourages over-editing at the top of the scroll, rather than allowing more even attention across the document that you get with individual pages. The mobile phone, once magical tech, has now become so ubiquitous that there is a resurgence of period crime drama, to a time before so many plot tropes became unrealistic. That past was different: 25 years ago, think what would happen if you said “I have 500 people following me...”  The future is looking bleak, though.  However, Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels show how to imagine a way out of climate change; they demonstrate a responsibility to synthesise something positive, not wallow in dystopia.

Next was the George Hay Lecture, a science-themed talk at Eastercons.  Prof Debbie Chachra, a materials scientist, talked on 3D Printing, Biology, and Futures for Materials.  3D printed materials can be carefully designed to have even loading and strength just where it’s needed, and then they can come out looking remarkably organic.  Biological materials are fascinating; they have structure on all levels from atomic to macroscopic, and each level’s structure contributes to the overall properties. For example, spider silk is not only stronger than steel, it absorbs impacts, otherwise flying prey would just trampoline off a web.  Biology provides a form of nanotechnology: not the precisce atom-by-atom placement of The Diamond Age, but a more stochastic yet reproducible model where biological machinery creates organisms from the bottom up with many levels of structure.  We can engineer biology on the nano-scale, too. CRISPR allows DNA editing.  DNA codon degeneracy (64 triplets code for 20 amino acids, plus punctuation)  allows us to design in new amino acids.  We can create new DNA bases beyond ACGT.  This is all highly complex machinery, and we are only just beginning to understand what is possible.  However, materials are the infrastructure of design.

Bill and the Doctor running through corridors
Then everyone trooped into the plenary room, to watch The Pilot episode of Doctor Who, which introduces new companion Bill Potts.  This is very much an introductory episode, educating new viewers on the Doctor, the Tardis, and Daleks.  The Doctor is in hiding, from what we don’t know, teaching at St Luke’s University, Bristol, where he has an academic office larger than that inhabited by many Vice Chancellors, and gives a lecture course that has probably not had its official learning outcomes approved by any sort of Teaching Committee.  Once it was over, we flooded back to the fan food room – which had stopped serving 10 minutes earlier, because there was no-one around.  So off for a short walk around Pendigo Lake to find dinner: a lamb, avocado, and chorizo burger at the Gourmet Burger Kitchen; yum.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Innominate Eastercon - Friday

This year’s 68th Easter Science Fiction convention saw us driving to the Birmingham Hilton Metropole, next to the NEC, the same hotel as used for Illustrious in 2011.  We left plenty of time for the drive, as the travel-pundits were predicting road chaos.  There was no road chaos. That left us plenty of time for lunch before starting to go to the sessions.

The first session I attended was a two-person panel on Biotechnology and the Law.  Dr Helen Pennington and Dr Colin Gavaghan talked on a variety of aspects of how the law is maybe failing to keep up with scientific advances.  CRISPR/Cas9, a technique to edit out genes from the genome, was mentioned a lot, including the fact that it can be used to produce GM organisms that are indistinguishable at the DNA level from organisms “naturally” bred to have the gene removed.  The consensus was that items should be labelled so consumers could exercise choice: some don’t want to eat GM food, some prefer GM food, as it doesn’t tend to have the trace amounts of natural fungal microtoxins that organic food does. Nevertheless, Scotland and New Zealand have banned the growing of all GM crops, not just food crops, in order to present a clean “green” image; this is ironic, given that Scotland does not exactly have a healthy food reputation!  The current “over the counter” availability, cheapness and ease-of-use of CRISPR led on to discussion of potential dangers; the panellists weren’t too worried, given the difficulty of keeping the GM organism alive: “any back-garden bio-terrorist is likely just to kill themselves, and a couple of neighbours”.  Given the potential untraceability of GM organisms, the suggestion was the most important legislation change is to require registering trials and publishing results, as is now beginning to happen for medical trials, to stop the covering up of “mistakes”.

Victorian times: Dinner in the Iguanodon Model, 1854
Next I went to a talk on Dinosaurs in fact and fiction by Dr Will Tattersdill. Dinosaurs are complicated: there are the “real” dinosaurs that existed in Deep Time, and there is our changing knowledge of dinosaurs since their discovery in Victorian times, to our better but still imperfect knowledge today.  They form a perfect link between the “two cultures” of arts and sciences: you can’t have a dinosaur without scientific activity and physical evidence, but you need imagination and art to “flesh out” a whole animal from a few bones or partial skeleton.  As science advances, our knowledge increases, but out dead images, our wrong images, stay with us, too, in books, in toys.  Arguing that these “old” dinosaurs are wrong is robbing us of our pasts, of our childhoods, in much the same way that arguing Pluto is not a planet does.  We have a nostalgia for outmoded science. In his essay “Dinomania” Stephen Jay Gould writes “When I was a child, ornithopods laid their eggs and then walked away forever.  Today these same creatures are the very models of maternal, caring, politically correct dinosaurs.”  Just look at the tenses and model of time in that quote!  Will speculates that dinosaurs are perfect for SF readers: we have the “cognitive agility” to hold multiple worlds, each with their own rules, and complex models of time, in our heads; this skill is needed to hold all the different “human pasts” of dinosaurs, too.  The talk covered more: history, cultural imperialism, phylogenetic trees, gender, SF stories, … you name it.  Brilliant stuff; I’m looking forward to his book due out end of 2019.

Next came David Allan’s quiz, loosely based on Pointless.  The team of 4 did well, hampered as they were on occasion by one of the options not appearing on their sheets, only on the screen visible to the audience.  Picture round: Name the alien.  Alternate letter round: Fictional planets: _A_I_O_R (Majipoor), _A_L_F_E_ (Gallifrey), A_R_K_S (Arrakis), M_D_E_I_ (Midkemia),  Title of First Novel in Trilogy on Being Given the Second, … When the surprisingly low scores for some of the more obvious options were revealed, the audience demanded to know who on earth the consulted panel were.

Then it was time for the opening ceremony.  As traditional, the Guests of Honour were invited up onto the stage, as were the con committee, for applause.  Afterwards, Dr Emma King from the Royal Institution gave an excellent presentation that involved lots of things going bang.

For the final item of my day, I went along to a panel on Making Money from Art and Craft in the SFF Community.  I am not myself an artist, by any stretch of the imagination, but I have a friend who is, who sells a few fantasy-related items on eBay.  I went to find out if there is more they could do.  In summary, and unsurprisingly, if you want to make more than just your costs back, you are going to have to move from a hobby to a profession, which many crafters don’t want to do.  But I did discover the existence of something called silver clay.  I won’t do anything with this knowledge, other than enjoy the fact that I now know about this.

canine freestyle routine

I think this is one of the most life-affirming things I’ve seen.  Certainly serves as the perfect unicorn chaser to the news lately.

[via BoingBoing]

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Thursday, 13 April 2017

avoiding travel to hostile countries

The 11th IEEE International Conference on Self-Adaptive and Self-Organizing Systems, to be held at the University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA this September has the following statement, in bold, at the bottom of their home page:
Remote Attendance
This year’s conference is scheduled to take place in the United States. We recognize that due to the current or potential future actions of the United States government, some people may be unable or fearful to attend. We have considered moving the conference to another country, but recognize that that will not resolve the situation, as some people may likewise be unable to safely leave the United States. Therefore, for any person who wishes to participate but is unable to do so due to the travel restrictions imposed by the United States government, we will be offering a “remote attendance” registration at a discounted rate, to be announced at a later point in time. Authors with accepted papers will be able to present their work remotely, complying with IEEE presentation requirements, and we are investigating videoconferencing solutions for streaming to remote attendees.

I was wondering long it would take for something like this would happen.  A sign of the times, indeed.

[h/t to Russ Abbot]

Saturday, 8 April 2017

sequestering carbon, several books at a time LXIX

I probably shouldn’t wait until the pile is this big...

Guide to Unconventional Computing for Music is a complimentary copy, as I wrote the introductory chapter.

Friday, 7 April 2017

ship tunnels for the 21st century

A BBC news video says that Norway is ...
... digging what they say is the world's first tunnel for ships

First?  I suppose it depends on how they define “ship”.  (And I bet they won’t be digging it by hand.)

I don't know how it's being funded, but this project is the sort of infrastructure you could fund if you haven’t squandered all your oil income.

Monday, 3 April 2017

views from a hotel window

I’ve just arrived in Trondheim, to be the “first opponent” in a PhD defence tomorrow.  (I feel I should have a sword!)

I’m in a hotel in the old town, with a view of a wooden building across a narrow cobbled street:

This highly angled view (taken through glass) is rather more picturesque than the view that greeted me initially:

The local “artists” could take some tips from their Granadan counterparts

And why do I feel my wifi code is in Welsh?

Friday, 31 March 2017

train mondegreen

Announcement on the train the other morning: “This is your 9.17 Cross Country service to...”

The word “nine” was pronounced something like “noyn”

So I heard it as “this is your annoyin’ 17 Cross Country service to ...”

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Tuesday, 28 March 2017

view from a college window

I’m at a two-day workshop on Biocomputation, hosted at St Chad’s in Durham.  The view from the window in my room is rather more picturesque that the usual car park or city street.

Monday, 27 March 2017

dodecagonic cash

Spot the difference:

the new £1 coin released tomorrow   -- v --   the old thrupenny bit (3d = 1.25p)

Sunday, 26 March 2017

book review: The Geek Feminist Revolution

Kameron Hurley.
The Geek Feminist Revolution.
Tor. 2016

The Geek Feminist Revolution collects over 30 of Kameron Hurley’s non-fiction essays, on a range of topics: being a geek, being a feminist, being sick in the US, being a writer, being a woman SF writer, being a copy writer, sexism, sexism in SF (both in the community, and in the literature), being trolled. Some of these pieces are from her blog, one is her magnificent Hugo award winning essay “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative” (reprinted here with added illustrations), some are new to this collection. All are worth reading.

The essays cover a wide range of topics, yet there is a common theme running through many of them: that of writing; from being a writer (including the value of sheer persistence, which here has to be read to be believed), to reviewing and critiquing the literature and community, all from an unabashedly feminist perspective. As always with books about writing, I look to see how well they take their own advice. Here, the prose style is admirably transparent, punchy, and readable. And the content is passionate, insightful, and well-argued. These essays make fascinating, if sometimes uncomfortable, reading. Recommended.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Friday, 24 March 2017

signs of spring

Frog spawn in the garden (zoom in to see the individual eggs)

Thursday, 23 March 2017

down the rabbit hole that is Google

I was reading an article on mitochondria, and it mentioned HIIT could boost their energy output.

I didn’t know what HIIT was, so I googled it: High-Intensity Interval Training.  It mentioned burpees.

I didn’t know what a burpee was (and the picture didn’t really help), so I googled it: How to do a burpee (video): it’s a combination of a squat thrust (I had to google that, too), a pushup, and a jump.

Google furthermore let me find a better graphic:

More like, how to do a burpee

The HIIT page says: Do as many burpees as possible in 20 seconds.

So, that would be zero, then?  Sounds do-able.  Not sure how it helps the mitochondria, though.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017


Interesting article on emotions, and how we can train them.
Emotions are not universal – we build them for ourselves 
Japan has arigata-meiwaku, the negative feeling when someone does you a favour that you didn’t want, are perhaps inconvenienced by, yet must still be grateful for.

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Update 23 March 2017:
A commenter says this article is behind a paywall. I didn't realise, as I subscribe to New Scientist.

So I'll provide a few more representative quotes.

Emotions are not hard-wired and universal:
If you look at the literature on facial expressions, most studies that support universality use a kind of psychological cheat – experimenters might force subjects to pick from a small set of emotion words when shown a facial expression, or unwittingly train subjects in the appropriate emotion concepts. 
My lab and others have shown that if you remove these cues, say, by asking subjects what a face means without a list of words to choose from, the whole effect falls apart. 
Thinking that they are causes damage to people:
The example that really gets me is the training of autistic children to recognise the stereotyped expressions stipulated by the classical view. This training is supposed to improve children’s social functioning. But nothing changes for these kids because these facial expressions don’t generalise outside the lab. 
Huge amounts of money are being spent on technology rooted in the idea that facial expressions are universal. For example, the US Transportation Security Administration spent $900 million on a method of reading faces and bodies that is rooted in the classical view. It didn’t work.
It's an incorrect stereotype:
... this stereotype is extremely damaging – there is evidence that when you refer to a woman as emotional, it usually means too emotional. So there’s a catch-22: if a woman is emotional, she’s seen as childish or out of control. If she’s not emotional enough – she defies the stereotype – she’s seen as a cold, untrustworthy bitch. For men the rules are not so strict. This is a real problem in courtrooms. There are people who can’t get a fair trial because jurors – and judges – accept the stereotype and believe that, generally, emotions can be easily read.
Reconstructing our own emotions can help us:
a student preparing for a test will be in a high arousal state. They might experience this arousal as anxiety, but they could learn to recategorise it as determination, which research shows will allow them to perform better on tests. This recategorisation can reduce stress, so they feel physically better too.
And there's a book:
Lisa Feldman Barrett. How Emotions are Made: The secret life of the brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2017 

Monday, 20 March 2017

when laziness and idealism coincide

Excellent boycott suggestion:

I will not log in to your website

Two or three times a day, I get an email whose basic structure is as follows:
Prof. Aaronson, given your expertise, we’d be incredibly grateful for your feedback on a paper / report / grant proposal about quantum computing.  To access the document in question, all you’ll need to do is create an account on our proprietary DigiScholar Portal system, a process that takes no more than 3 hours.  If, at the end of that process, you’re told that the account setup failed, it might be because your browser’s certificates are outdated, or because you already have an account with us, or simply because our server is acting up, or some other reason.  If you already have an account, you’ll of course need to remember your DigiScholar Portal ID and password, and not confuse them with the 500 other usernames and passwords you’ve created for similar reasons—ours required their own distinctive combination of upper and lowercase letters, numerals, and symbols.  After navigating through our site to access the document, you’ll then be able to enter your DigiScholar Review, strictly adhering to our 15-part format, and keeping in mind that our system will log you out and delete all your work after 30 seconds of inactivity.  If you have trouble, just call our helpline during normal business hours (excluding Wednesdays and Thursdays) and stay on the line until someone assists you.  Most importantly, please understand that we can neither email you the document we want you to read, nor accept any comments about it by email.  In fact, all emails to this address will be automatically ignored.
Every day, I seem to grow crustier than the last.

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Sunday, 19 March 2017

unread books

tsundoku: n.
buying books and not reading them; stockpiling books

Via Danny Yee’s ever-interesting and pathologically polymathic blog, I recently came across the following article:
There’s a word in Japanese for the literary affliction of buying books you don’t read 
So many books, so little time. In the age of media binging, too often we end up buying books we never actually read. 
The moment goes something like this: Skim fascinating book review online. Buy on Amazon with 1-click. Scroll down. Buy two other titles with 1-click. Leave books on bedside table. Repeat two weeks later. Scold yourself for killing the trees. 
It’s an affliction so common that there’s a word for it in Japanese, and a support group on Goodreads.
I don’t know what’s worse about this article: the use of the term “affliction”, implying there might be some sort of problem with this behaviour; or the thought that one so afflicted could make do with the storage space provided by a bedside table.

I belong to a different demographic where books are concerned.  I much prefer the philosophy of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, as expounded on the very first page of his book The Black Swan:
a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books.

I will continue to buy faster than I read; I will continue to commit tsundoku: it’s my pension fund.  It also provides a pleasing two-stage book choice process: what am I going to buy next, and then, given what I’ve bought, what am I going to read next.

This is nothing like my own to-read pile.  It’s possibly the right size, but I shelve mine much more tidily.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.

Why would GCHQ spy on Trump?  Their job is to gather intelligence.

GCHQ dismisses ‘utterly ridiculous’ claim it helped wiretap Trump
“Recent allegations made by media commentator judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wiretapping’ against the then president-elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”

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Friday, 17 March 2017

the future's orange

Faith in humanity restored (for now).

Dutch election: Wilders defeat celebrated by PM Rutte
my, what big hands you have!

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Thursday, 16 March 2017

not even pseudoscience

Sabine Hossenfelder nails it again – an argument against the simulation hypothesis from physics – but a much better one than usual.  The usual one tries to extrapolate physics from our universe to the “outside” one, which doesn’t work: they need not be the same.  Sabine argues about the physics of our universe within our universe: how hard it is to get consistent explanations, and why the hypothetical external programmer would have difficulties keeping up with our (simulated) scientists poking their noses into everything.

She’s a little grumpier than usual:
No, we probably don’t live in a computer simulation 
All this talk about how we might be living in a computer simulation pisses me off not because I’m afraid people will actually believe it. No, I think most people are much smarter than many self-declared intellectuals like to admit. Most readers will instead correctly conclude that today’s intelligencia is full of shit. And I can’t even blame them for it.

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Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Monday, 13 March 2017

visualising complex continued fractions

Thomas Baruchel's beautiful plots of complex continued fractions.

[via John Baez]

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Sunday, 12 March 2017

book review: The Rook

Daniel O'Malley.
The Rook.
Head of Zeus. 2012

Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in a London park surrounded by bodies, with no memory of who she is, or how she got there. She needs to find out in a hurry, as unknown people are trying to kill her. She has three advantages: letters from her previous hyper-efficient self explaining the situation, a senior position in a sinister secret organisation, and superpowers no-one believes she can use.

It is difficult to categorise this, but I enjoyed this immensely. The puzzle of what is going on, explained in turns by the letters and Myfanwy’s own investigations, is interesting. The sarcastic tone of the protagonist as she encounters her colleagues’ attitude to her previous timid self, and the increasingly bizarre situations and revelations, make this in turns intriguing, a little scary, very funny, and occasionally a bit gross (in a good way).

The single off note for me is that this is written in the third person, but from the style I kept feeling it should be first person. But I assume the author knows best.

Just as I was finishing this, I was delighted to discover a sequel had just been published. Reader, I bought it. On the one hand, I don’t have to wait the five years that readers who discovered The Rook in 2012 have had to wait. On the other hand, can O’Malley keep up the clever and bizarre content? I do hope so.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

binary chop to the rescue

I spent most of an afternoon this week deleting a comma.

Well, first I had to find the comma.

And before that, I had to find that I needed to find a comma.

BibLaTeX could do with better error messages.

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F for ’vescence?

We have an extractor hood over the hob.  It has a single 7-segment display, to indicate fan speed.  The other day it started flashing an “F” while we were burning some sausages for lunch.

Scrabble around to find the manual.  Oh, it means the filter needs cleaning.  The manual says this should be done once a month.

We’ve had the hood for 17 years, have never cleaned the filter, and this is the first time it’s whinged...

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Friday, 10 March 2017

sequestering carbon, several books at a time LXVIII

The latest batch:

Amazon second hand is useful for finding some otherwise expensive books at reasonable prices: Catalyzing Inquiry at the Interface of Computing and Biology is £46 new, but I paid £3.99 second hand (including postage); The Social Face of Complexity Science is about £45 new, but I paid £3.48 (again, this includes p&p).  I would almost certainly not have bought either of them full price.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

which we are not supposed to call a septic tank

The Catholic church is ‘shocked’ at the hundreds of children buried at Tuam. Really? 
Catholic Ireland always had abortions, just very late-term ones, administered slowly by nuns after the children were already born

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Tuesday, 7 March 2017

y2k bugs?

So, I’ve been interviewing some students for our next undergraduate intake.  The application forms include date of birth.  Many were born in 1999.  So next year’s interviewees ... oh dear!

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Monday, 6 March 2017


Seen in a hedgerow near home this morning:

It was clearly sufficiently sheltered to survive yesterday’s hail.

Sunday, 5 March 2017


Picture from a few minutes ago:

taken through glass, so some artefacts visible

From this, it’s just possible to see it’s a double rainbow: there’s a very faint outer bow, which I didn’t even notice until I looked at the photo.

Although given what the weather was doing, it’s more strictly a double hailbow.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

life on hold

AWS “down”

Means Trello is down.

Means I can’t do any work...
(or rather, I don’t know what work to do...)

Oh the joys of cloud-living....

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Sunday, 26 February 2017

film review: Ghostbusters (2016)

There’s been a lot said about this gender-flipped remake of the 1984 original, ranging from it’s the best thing ever made!, to this desecration has ruined my entire childhood! So, what is the fuss about? Well, the truth, of course, is somewhere in between. But where in between, precisely?

First, I have a confession to make. I was never a big fan of the original. Its style of slap-stick and frat-boy humour grates a little with me. Yet it has its inspired moments. And in this way, I can say that the remake, which follows a similar plot, in a similar style, pretty much hits the same mark for me. The best bits are from Jillian the mad engineer, and the ever more outlandish devices she designs and builds.

There are some nice hat-tips to the earlier version, such as the genesis of the logo, or when the team is looking for a base, and pass up a certain fire station, because of its exorbitant rent. And there are a couple of lovely cameos, one from Bill Murray as a sceptical critic of the team, and one from Sigourney Weaver, as an engineering mentor. These scenes show a degree of engagement with the original.

And what about the gender-flipping? Well, frankly, if this hadn’t been a remake, I don’t think anyone would have thought anything strange about these roles. Except possibly for the pathetic way Erin lusts after the himbo secretary. Of course, a man drooling this way over a bimbo secretary wouldn’t raise an eyebrow (except that this was some of the humour that grated the first time round). Which maybe would be the point, if this version weren’t supposed to be funny, too.

So, neither wonderful, nor a desecration. Just some (for the most part) fun mind candy.

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Saturday, 25 February 2017

Doris damage

Storm Doris meant it was a bit windy on Thursday.  Our neighbours lost their fence.  Our own losses were rather less severe, but rather more inaccessible.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

central to the practice of knowledge formation

In defence of writing book reviews 
book reviews create dialogue between researchers. They offer reflection; they push questions; they challenge ideas; and they inform readers, authors and even the reviewers themselves. They force us to read attentively, to see the detail and then to communicate that to others. Book reviews are an innately collaborative and community based activity, in which we think and share our reactions to the important books of the day

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Monday, 20 February 2017

The Gift

A neat short-short story about an empathetic AI by my colleague Alan Winfield.

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Saturday, 18 February 2017

the furthest planet from the sun is Neptune, no Pluto, no Neptune, no Pluto, no Neptune!

On 23 September 1846, Neptune was discovered, and became the furthest known planet from the sun.

bad luck, Pluto
On 18 February 1930, 87 years ago today, Pluto was discovered, and became the furthest known planet from the sun.

On 7 February 1979, Pluto crossed inside Neptune’s orbit, and Neptune became the furthest known planet from the sun, for the second time.

(Extrasolar planets started being discovered in 1992, but we won’t count them here.)

On 11 February 1999, Pluto crossed back outside Neptune’s orbit, and became the furthest known planet from the sun, for the second time.
third time lucky!

On 24 August 2006, Pluto was downgraded to a “dwarf planet”, and Neptune became the furthest known planet from the sun, for the third time.

Friday, 17 February 2017

view from a hotel window

I’ve been at the EPSRC ICT Early Career Workshop, acting as a “mentor”, and mainly talking about Cross-Disciplinarity.  It’s been an interesting two days in Sheffield, getting to meet the next generation of researchers.

Update 21 Mar 2017: EPSRC’s own blog post about the event, with somewhat more detail

Sunday, 12 February 2017

book review: A Symphony of Echoes

Jodi Taylor.
A Symphony of Echoes.
Accent Press. 2013

Max and the crew of time-travelling historians are back. We get another series of historical adventures, both of snippets providing scenes of hilarity or tragedy (sometimes simultaneously), and of major events that move the plot forward. Here the snippets include observing the final kill of Jack the Ripper, a team-building exercise with dodos, an expedition to Canterbury Cathedral to record the assassination of Thomas a Beckett, and a trip to the Hanging Gardens of Ninevah. The plot, that of protecting St Mary’s, and all of history, from Ronan, includes a protracted visit to future St. Mary’s, and a trip to imperil Mary Queen of Scots, in order to confound the unhistorical ending of the lost Shakespeare play.
‘Dr Maxwell. Why are you wearing a red snake in my office?’
‘Sorry, sir. Whose office should I be wearing it in?’
The combination of snark, fun, terrible historical incidents, and the tragic fight against Ronan continues. Still compulsively readable.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

book review: Small Move, Big Change

Caroline L. Arnold.
Small Move, Big Change: using microresolutions to transform your life permanently.
Penguin. 2016

Several years ago I made the only New Year’s resolution that I’ve managed to keep: to make no more New Year’s resolutions. But I heard about the “microresolution” idea, with its promise of sustainability, and decided to find out more about it.

The key idea is that most resolutions are too big (“get fit”), and too vague (“go to the gym a lot”). They set impossible targets, and few specifics on how to achieve them. The microresolutions approach has two central ideas: the target is small and so achievable, and the steps to achieve it are well planned. The aim is to make a specific and relatively simple change, for long enough that the new behaviour becomes engrained, which takes two to three months to happen. Once the habit is firmly set, a new microresolution (up to a maximum of two at a time) can be started. These ingrained habits steadily accumulate (like compound interest) to produce the desired macro-change. Additionally, this approach provides a constant stream of successes, as each microresolution is achieved.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. It requires thought – which specific small behaviour change? – and planning – how and when to trigger the behaviour? These are crucial for success, so this is not a magic cure-all. The trigger in particular needs to be carefully designed: a reminder to do, or not to do, the specific thing in exactly the right circumstance.
This is definitely a sensible and practical approach to changing behaviour: incremental development, where each increment becomes a habit, providing incremental feelings of success, building to a large overall effect.

Maybe I’ll break that last New Year’s resolution after all.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.