Sunday, 20 August 2017

Worldcon 75: Thursday

Day 2 of the Worldcon had more programming, so the attendees were distributed over several more rooms.  This meant I got into more programme items, if not always my first (or even second) choice items.

First up was the panel In Defence of the Unlikeable Heroine.  This discussed the double standard: a hero is allowed to have flaws, to be unlikeable, and we forgive him for this.  But give the same traits to a heroine, or even less extreme ones, and suddenly she is unforgivably unlikeable.  Men can be heroes or antiheroes, but women who cross the line become villains. Characters don’t need to be likeable, though: we want to read about interesting rounded compelling characters doing interesting things; we don’t necessarily want to sit down and have a cup of tea with them.  In films, a female protagonist can be strong and assertive, provided she is also sexy, to soften her for male audiences.  Think of Katniss from The Hunger Games: her youth and hotness compensates for her unlikeableness, yet her unlikeableness merely stems from the fact that she doesn’t want to die.  Moreover, the plot is manipulated so that she only kills in self-defence; a male lead would be allowed to strike first and not be apologetic for saving his own life.  Charlize Theron and Helen Mirren can play cold ice queens because they are beautiful.  Older female characters can get away with being unlikeable—Granny Weatherwax has no fucks to give—but there is a dearth of such older characters too.  Some of the issues might be from the way audiences code “female” as “mother”, and that unmotherly becomes unlikeable.  Part of being a mother is putting your children ahead of you, part of being motherly is putting everyone ahead of you.

Next was Nalo Hopkinson’s Guest of Honour interview, and then Walter Jon Williams’ Guest of Honour presentation.  I always enjoy hearing about authors’ lives: they are often unusual in some respects.

Next was a panel on Asexuality in SF.  Jo Walton was on the panel, and commented that her first novel, The King’s Peace, has an asexual protagonist, which fact got zero attention (except from asexual people recognising themselves), yet when her novel Farthing came out, everyone was saying “there are so many gay people in this book” that she had to come out as straight! Why the difference in attention?  Is it because it’s hard to notice the lack of something?  A lot of early SF left out sex; it was essentially asexual.  Now that it can include sex, there’s no more room for asexual characters.  Historically there were a lot of asexual and celibate people, who are being reimagined as gay.  Yet people like Leonardo da Vinci wouldn’t have been closeted, because their Renaissance pals were writing about their homosexual relationships all the time.  Authors play with pronouns, and the reading of the characters’ relationships as sexual or not can depend on this.  Ann Leckie uses “she” for all in the Ancillary series.  Ada Palmer uses “they”, except for the narrator who uses “he/she”, but coded for social role, not gender.  Delany, in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, uses “she” unless you desire them, when it changes to “he”.  The experience of reading with this ambiguity is interesting.  [I was wondering how it works in non-gendered languages, like Finnish, but that was another panel.]

After a break for lunch, I went to a panel on the Role of Secrets in Speculative Fiction.  There are different sorts of secrets: the true identity of a character, something being hidden from the character, something a character knows that they couldn’t possibly know, secret histories, conspiracies, and so on.  The reveal shouldn’t be too early, losing tension, but it shouldn’t wait until the last page, turning everything on its head; it is best to reveal large secrets of the world slowly, letting the reader puzzle them out.  It shouldn’t be over-signposted, but shouldn’t be a rabbit out of a hat.  It should be important to the plot, and should stand up to re-reading.

Next came a panel on Science Fiction and Fantasy in musical theatre.  Musicals are inherently not realistic, but how to make them science fictional?  There are more fantasy-based musicals, as there often needs to be less world-building: Wicked as a prequel to Oz needs very little context setting, as the audience can be expected to know the story.  Musicals allow for breaking the fourth wall and other such devices; the audience is willing to suspend a lot of disbelief.  An adaptation needs two female and two male roles, for the range of voice parts: this can be difficult for adapting many SF stories!

Long-form Storytelling in Scifi Videogames was an interesting lecture by Ivaylo “Evil Ivo” Shmilev, about requirements for the interactive story basis for videogames that require a significant time to complete.  The requirements boil down to sufficient non-trivial diversity and complexity that the players maintain interest, and a range of ways to achieve this.  Even if a game is very linear, the complexity can result in a kind of urgency that keeps the player engaged.

I then went along to a presentation on The Perils Of Book Collecting, by James Bryant, covering what to collect, how to store, and when to dispose of items.  People collect different things: incunabula, first editions, all editions or all translations of a particular work, autographed copies, complete works of a single author, works of a small publisher, and even books you want to read.  For storage, the main perils are water (falling from above, rising from below, or seeping in from outside), inadequate floor strength, and children.  A tip re damp: build shelves with a lip at the back and a gap between them and the wall, so books can’t touch the wall, and air can circulate.  Make sure books are insured for replacement price, not cover price.  Have your paperbacks in electronic format (not textbooks, illustrated, signed or other special editions, though), well backed up.  You can get 5000 paperbacks on an SD card, so you can have your library with you everywhere, without need to access the cloud; it’s great on aeroplanes, for searching for passages, for making the font size bigger.  Leave your collection in your will to someone who wants it, and understands what they are getting, otherwise it will get thrown out.

I looked in on Adventure Games, but only stayed for about 20 minutes, as it was mostly a list of games, and once he got past the ones I knew of, it wasn’t that interesting to me.  [Yes, I played Colossal Cave on an IBM 370 mainframe in the early 1980s.]

The final panel of the day was Bringing SF into University Courses: Experiences from the Field.  There are Masters courses on SF, and more undergraduate literature courses are including SF modules.  It’s being pushed by academics interested in the area, and pulled by student interest.  There is still some snobbery about it, but after all, mainstream is just another genre: it has its own shelf in the bookstore! It also provides an opportunity for cross-disciplinary teaching, such as: teaching physics by ruining Hollywood movies; an Environmental Studies programme seeing how the Anthropocene is tackled in SF.

Then it was off for supper with a couple of Finnish fan friends I first met at a Narrating Complexity workshop in York.  It’s a small world.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Worldcon 75 : Wednesday

We had scoped out where the number 9 tram stop was yesterday evening, so we confidently went along to it in the morning.  The tram arrived promptly, and promptly terminated, disgorging all its passengers.  Fortunately there was another right behind, so we boarded that. There were lots of other fannish people on board, so we decided it would be easy to know where to get off.  And it was, not just by following the hordes, but because the venue was visible from the tram stop.

fen converging on the prominently-named venue
Although programming didn’t start until noon, we went along early, to make sure we could find the way, and because we were anticipating a long wait in the registration queue.  The way was easy to find, and registration was remarkably efficient, taking only a few minutes, so we then had a couple of hours to get a coffee, and explore the venue, finding the locations of the various programme rooms.

12 noon, and off to my first item.  But.  Huge queue, tiny room, filled before I got there.  So, off to my backup item.  Huge queue, tiny room, filled before I got there.  Hmm.  Even at the packed Loncon, I had managed to get into a backup item.  I went and explored the fan area instead.

1pm; I had joined the queue early, and just got into the panel on Invented Mythologies.  The panel comprised writers and people with degrees in history and in mythology and folklore. First of all, a definition, to distinguish mythology from hero tales, legends, folklore, and fairy tales. A myth is a sacred narrative held to be true and metaphorically true by the population, about how the world came to be as it is.  Myths involve gods, whereas legends involve demi-gods or mortals.  Over time, mortal protagonists can be “promoted” in status, moving from legend to myth.  How can we remix existing mythologies while avoiding cultural appropriation?  The advice was to restrict use to cultural systems not currently being observed by existing people, and to beware of using traditions of people over whom the writer’s cultural group currently has a power relationship.  How much backstory should we invent?  Answers diverged here, from the “just enough for the story” to “fully worked out”, but there was a definite consensus on “no infodumping”—just throw the reader into the story and let them puzzle out the background—and “no homogenous nations/planets”—have some complexity, diversity, blending, and inconsistency, as in the the way real world mythologies evolve over time.

2pm, and I again failed to get into either my first choice or my backup item, so I went for lunch instead.  At the far end of the venue was a nice “all you can eat” hot buffet (plus a good selection of salad laid on for the various alien species who eat that sort of food) for 15 Euros.

3pm, and early joining of the queue got me into a panel on Obsolete Science Ideas.  Which old ideas from science, that are now obsolete, nevertheless manage to live on in SF today, or at least lived on in SF for a while after their disproof?  Since one of the panellists had to drop out, this was a panel of two.  They covered Hollow Earth ideas (proposed by Edmond Halley, to explain anomalies in compass readings), dinosaurs still living today, Venus with oceans, Mars with canals, anti-gravity fields in small shuttles, faster-than-light travel (and what you see out of the window), interstellar empires with feudal politics, habitable planets with a single climate zone and only predators, RNA as a memory carrier, counter-earth, and so on. Such ideas persist because they are poetic, because they make good stories, which messy contingent complex reality often doesn’t.

4pm, and it’s the familiar story: long queues, no room.  At least the art show was open.

5pm, and off to learn about Destroying The Universe With Vacuum Bubbles.  This was a scientific presentation on why some people had been worried that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) search for the Higg’s boson might destroy the universe, and, even though that didn't happen, how the universe definitely will end because of vacuum instability, if the current Standard Model in physics is right.  The Standard Model (plus the currently known values of particle masses) imply that the vacuum is unstable, and quantum mechanics allows “tunnelling” to the more stable negative-energy ground state.  That would create a vacuum bubble that would expand at the speed of light, inside which spacetime itself has collapsed to nothing.  It doesn’t just destroy everything in the universe, it destroys the universe itself!  We don’t need to worry, though, because the half-life for this tunnelling is 10600 years.  People were worried about the LHC, because they thought that the energies involved might allow the system to jump over, rather than wait to tunnel through, the energy barrier.  But it turns out that elementary particle collisions can’t produce enough energy density over a large enough volume for this to happen (phew!)  But anyway, some cosmic rays are orders of magnitude more energetic than the LHC, and they haven’t initiated a vacuum collapse yet.  A more interesting question is why primordial black hole catalysed vacuum decay hasn’t occurred: is this demonstrating there is something missing from black hole theory, or from the Standard Model, or that the particle masses are different enough from current measurements that the ground state does not have negative energy and so does not expand? That is, does the universe’s continued existence provide evidence that our physics is wrong?  All in all, this was an excellent talk, full of great science, with a light-touch delivery.

6pm, and again, no chance to get in anywhere as there was not enough time to join one of the queues directly after the previous item.  So we went and grabbed a bit to eat.  We met a member of the programme staff I knew from work, and discussed the queuing situation.  I said how I had recently joked that, given the number of parallel sessions, I would miss almost as much or the Worldcon as someone not attending.  But it seemed I was missing more than that!  Apparently many more people (like, every SF fan in Finland...) had registered than they were expecting, and had then come along on the first day when there wasn't as much programming as there might be.  Hopefully it will be better tomorrow, with more items to spread out between.

We started queuing early for the evening concert, which had, sensibly, been moved to a larger room than originally scheduled.  The blurb for the event said: “Another Castle is the geekiest women’s choir in Helsinki. Riverside Castle is the geekiest women’s choir in Turku”, sort of implying there are other geeky women's choirs in these two cities.  The joint choir started off in a way sure to please this crowd: doo de-do, doo de-do, doo de-do, dee di-di, woo-wooooo! The Doctor Who theme sung a cappella by about 40 voices was amazing.  They continued with a variety of science fictional themes from film, TV and games.  Their finale was greeted with a standing ovation.  This must have taken them slightly by surprise, because the choir leader apologised to us that they had no encore prepared.  “Do the Doctor Who again!” yelled a voice from the audience.  “That will work”, she said.  So they did.  And it was excellent again.

9pm-ish, and still quite light.  So we walked back to the hotel.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

ready for the WorldCon

We arrived in Helsinki today, ready for the Science Fiction WorldCon starting tomorrow.

The flight from Heathrow was unenventful, and getting the train from the airport to the main station was very smooth.  Given we had luggage, we decided not to wrestle with trams, but got a taxi to the hotel.

Then we scoped out the location of the tram stop for tomorrow's trip to the convention centre, and had an evening meal.  Reindeer was on the menu, but I opted for pork this time.  And no tar ice cream.

Back to the hotel for a good night's sleep (hopefully) that recalibrates our internal clocks to the two hour time difference, ready to hit the fray tomorrow.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Tupper's self-referential formula

This video introduces Tupper’s self-referential formula.  The formula is both more, and less, amazing that it initially seems.

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Saturday, 29 July 2017

a summer evening in Lyon

I was in Lyon on Thursday (as a member of a PhD defence panel) and Friday (continuing my collaboration with Wolfgang Banzhaf and Guillaume Beslon on Open-Ended Evolution, emergence, and metamodels).

On Thursday evening the panel had dinner with the successful PhD candidate.  We walked from the hotel to the restaurant via the old town.

Cathedral Saint-Jean-Baptiste

rue de la Fronde
crossing the Saône on the Saint-Vincent footbridge; the view north west at 8pm...
...and then the view south east

Fresque des Lyonnais: this whole-building mural depicts famous people from Lyon

Then on to a lovely leisurely meal at Le Bouchon des Filles.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Worldcon schedule

Anyone know how I can get 20 clones of myself in the next fortnight?
(Oh, and they have to be delivered to Helsinki free of charge.)

Otherwise I’m going to miss almost all of the Worldcon!

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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

sequestering carbon, several books at a time LXXIV

The latest batch includes several birthday presents.

I asked for the Simondon after hearing a talk by Ezequiel Di Paolo about his work at ALife last year.  And I asked for the Picturing Quantum Processes after hearing a talk by Bob Coecke mentioning it at UCNC last year.  Into the Unknown is the book accompanying the SF exhibition of the same name at the Barbican this summer; I wrote one of the pieces in it.

Monday, 24 July 2017


yummy Tesco Mediterranean loaf
loaf prepared for the freezer
why do I always flash back to these at this point?

Sunday, 16 July 2017

the new Doctor

The Master was just the dress rehearsal.

Doctor Who’s 13th Time Lord to be played by Jodie Whittaker

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Wednesday, 12 July 2017

book review: The Three-Body Problem

Cixin Liu.
The Three-Body Problem.
Head of Zeus. 2015

Ye Wenjie watches from hiding as four teenaged Red Guards beat her father to death during a show trial at the height of the Cultural Revolution. This experience underpins a decision she makes many years later, a decision that indirectly leads to the suicides of many physicists, her daughter included, and will soon impact every person on earth. In the present day, Wang Miao encounters a strangely addictive full-immersion computer game called “Three Body”, which may hold the clue to the suicides, and other inexplicable events.

This is a peculiarly uneven book. The setting, both in the past and the present day, is richly drawn. But all the characters seem either very flat or completely over the top, and surprisingly incurious, even those who are supposed to be investigators. Some of their actions seemed to be purely to allow info-dumping. The alien world of the game is interesting, but the degree of immersion is implausible: why would anyone actually play it?

I don’t know how much of this is due to the translation, how much to the original, and how much to a different cultural style that I am unfamiliar with. Yet there are peculiar translator’s notes in places. I expect maybe the odd note to explain something that doesn’t translate (Hofstadter has a lot to say about issues that face translation across cultures), but there are also notes explaining some of the physics, which seems outside the job spec. There’s even at one point an author’s note explaining a point of physics: infodump via footnote!

Don’t get me wrong. There are lovely touches, like an incident precisely paralleling an earlier one: Ye Wenjie isn’t the only one to make a fateful decision. The scene of stopping the ship in the Panama canal will stay with me for a while. And the solution described in the final part, explaining all the earlier weirdnesses, fully encompasses the reason I read SF. I will be reading the next in the trilogy to find out what happens next.

Oh, but I just have to say it; sorry. The computer game “Three Body” involves the chaotic orbit of a planet around its three suns. Which is, of course, the four-body problem.

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Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Angel’s Feather

So, my upgraded phone not only no longer has the wonderful “smart alarm”, that gradually increases volume, waking me up gently rather than with heart pounding, it doesn’t have the tender Angel’s Feather tone.  And the alarm’s minimum volume is way too loud.

After a week of being jolted awake, or waking early in anticipation, I decided to see what I could do.  The web is a marvellous beast.

First of all, the hunt for the tone (I had the name from the old phone) led me to a YouTube video.

Who wouldn’t want to wake to that?

Then a trip to OnlineVideoConverter to convert to mp3.  I downloaded that to the music directory on my phone, then selected it as my alarm tone.  Yay!

But still too loud.  The alarm has only a very coarse volume control. So back to the web, to MP3 Louder, and decrease the volume by 3db.  Download the new version.

Ah!  Bliss!

But why Samsung had to remove both the smart alarm and the tone in the first place ... grumble, grumble ...

Friday, 30 June 2017

upgraded toy

It’s been just over two years since I got my last smartphone, a Samsung Galaxy S5.  I had a card in Trello to remind me to change to a pay-as-you-go contract after two years.  But the phone itself has been letting me know that wasn't a good idea, having got slow, hot, and glitchy.  So I decided to upgrade, to a Galaxy S7.  The package I got has twice the memory (32 GB) and twice the monthly dowload (2GB) for the same price as previously.

The BBC News widget just displays
“loading”, which is a bit useless
The S7 looks virtually identical to the S5 (and not just because I’ve configured it similarly!).  It’s the same size, and looks the same from the front, but has a different feel.  The S5’s tacky chrome edging has been replaced with a much less tacky brush steel edging, but the S5’s nice non-slip backplate has morphed into a super-duper shiny smooth backplate that makes it feel as if the phone is about to slip out of my hand.  The volume rocker has changed to two switches, one for up, one for down, and the off switch is lower down on the right, which makes it a little harder to hold with my thumb on the switch ready to turn it off.  The double-click home button for “instant” camera should be useful.

I spent the afternoon configuring things to look as much as possible like the previous phone.  This was less painful than last time: the app store has a “library” list of all the apps I had installed at some point on the previous phone, so I could just install the ones I wanted here.  (Bizarrely, it is possible to alphabetise the short list of installed apps, but not the much longer list of library apps.)

Well, it has most of them.  Two apps don’t appear in the list.  The Rail Planner Live app isn’t there, and so it looks like I might have to pay for it all over again.  I tried the National Rail app instead, but it kept freezing.  And the text/OCR app I’ve been using, ABBYY TextGrabber, has changed to a rather expensive pay version – so I’m going to try Text Fairy instead.

The Samsung crudware seems much less visible this time around, so it was less effort to hide it away.  There’s a nice new “blue filter” option, that makes the phone emit less blue light at night: let’s see if I get to sleep more easily.  But I certainly won’t be waking up more smoothly.  The alarm clock has again reduced in functionality.  Last upgrade I lost my preferred gentle Sparkling mist alarm tone.  I grudgingly adapted.  This time it’s much worse: the Smart Alarm has been removed.  The Smart Alarm was brilliant, the exact opposite of crudware: it started at very low volume three minutes before the set alarm time, and very grew gradually louder.  It was the perfect wake up alarm, as I would gently drift awake, rather than wake “alarmed”.  And it was the perfect alarm while at work: it didn’t jolt me out of flow.  That’s all gone now.  The alarm does have a “gradually increase volume” option, but it increases it from a minimum value which is still pretty loud, not from zero; since I have the volume set to that minimum anyway, the option has no effect.  I am not the only one annoyed at this removal.

Now, any recommendations for some good games?  I’ve got a bit bored with Angry Birds Blast, having reached level 7 gazillion, so I haven’t loaded it onto the S7.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

sharing my internet

Latest scammer:  "Shaun Harris" (despite a strong Indian accent, but hey) calling from "BT" asking if I had "shared my Internet" with anyone recently, as that is why it is running slow.


Sunday, 18 June 2017

long day

This time of year, "tonight's" weather forecast can be for full sun, at both 9pm and 5am.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

book review: Thought X

Rob Appleby, Ra Page, eds.
Thought X: fictions and hypotheticals.
Comma Press. 2017

Ra Page at Comma Press has commissioned several books with the same concept: a bunch of academics are paired up with a bunch of fiction writers; they share a technical concept, the writer uses it for a (usualy science fictional) story, the academic writes an after-word explaining the technicalities. I was involved in an earlier book (Beta-Life) themed on Artificial Life and Unconventional Computing; this book covers thought experiments and philosophical paradoxes. Caveat: because of my earlier involvement, the publishers sent me a free copy of this book, for review.

One of the reasons I read science fiction is for the way it can include technical information as part of the story. And as I was reading many of these, I was reminded of several other tales based on simlar concepts. The technical after-words cite technical papers for further reading; I thought that here I could reference other fiction (and a little non-fiction, I confess), for readers who want more.

Several stories are based on special and general relativity: apparent paradoxes from its non-intuitive nature, and thought experiments by Einstein, master of such Gedankenexperimente. We start with Adam Marek’s “Lightspeed”, based on the Twin Paradox, where a person who goes of in a spacecraft moving close to the speed of light will find on their return that they have aged less that those who stayed at home. Here the traveller is a husband and father, leaving his family ever further behind on each trip he takes. This form of time dilation is a staple in SF, including Robert Heinlein’s 1956 juvenile novel Time for the Stars, featuring actual twins, and Joan D. Vinge’s 1974 novella “Tin Soldier”, which pairs a slowly-ageing cyborg with a time-dilated space pilot.

The next topic is the Experience Machine: is it better to live in reality, or experience more pleasure in a simulated world? The argument applies to drug use, too. Zoe Gilbert’s “Tether” gives us a story where the experience may be a magical hallucination, or such advanced tech that it is indistinguishable from magic; either way, the bliss of flying as high as a kite is irresistible. Examples of Virtual Reality and consciousness uploading abound in SF. Tom Cool in his late 1990s novels Infectress and Secret Realms delves into full immersion VR, and shows how, rather than being utopia, it can be used as the most sophisticated torture device ever invented. A few years earlier Greg Egan was exploring uploading, in Permutation City and Diaspora. The trope is common in SF movies too: 1999 alone saw The Matrix and eXistenZ.

Sarah Schofield’s “The Tiniest Atom”, a story of loss in war time, takes on Laplace’s Demon working in a Newtonian universe, where if you know the position and momentum of every particle in the universe, you can perfectly predict the future. Recently, chaos theory has shown that determinism does not necessarily imply predictability, because of sensitive dependence on initial conditions; one consequence is the Butterfly Effect, which has made its way into science fiction literature, with Ray Bradbury’s 1952 story “A Sound of Thunder” (presciently killing a butterfly) and James P. Hogan’s wonderfully titled 1997 story “Madam Butterfly”.

Annie Kirby’s “Red” moves from the technological to the psychological, and the thought experiment of Mary’s Room: a scientist is raised in black and white world, yet knowing everything there is to know about light, and the colour red; how will she react when she first sees that colour? (I always worry about the protocol of this experiment: the first time Mary gets a paper cut, or bites her nails over-enthusiastically, it will ruin the setup.) Here the protagonist loses her colour vision, but red plays a key role in why. I don’t know any SF based on this thought experiment (although gaining a whole new sense might be related), but the philosopher Daniel Dennett has written an interesting chapter on Mary in his 2005 book Sweet Dreams.

Andy Hedgecock’s “XOR” is a clever little double-loop variant of the Grandfather Paradox, where you go back in time and kill your grandfather, or make some other change, that alters the future so that you are no longer in the position to go back in time to kill your grandfather. Science fiction is full of Time Patrols, and Time Police, and Time Guardians, to stop this sort of thing in its tracks, and full of Time Criminals refusing to be stopped. Robert Heinlein has a couple of variants on this theme, with the time travel actually creating, rather than destroying, the timeline: his 1941 five finger exercise “By His Bootstraps” and his 1959 masterpiece “All You Zombies—”. There are several films in the sub-genre: The fun Back to the Future (1985), the bonkers Looper (2012), and the twisty Primer (2004) are just three examples.

Mary Louise Cookson’s “Bright Boy” is inspired by Maxwell’s demon, a thought experiment attempting to break the second law of thermodynamics. Here a little boy appears to have uncanny control over information and entropy. I’m not sure I know any SF that is explicitly about breaking this law, although many blithely ignore it.

The Chinese Room is an old chestnut in the philosophy of Artificial Intelligence: a man who does not know Chinese sits in a room following an algorithm to translate input Chinese symbols into output Chinese answers: where is the understanding of Chinese? Annie Clarkson’s “The Rooms” features a woman employed to converse with human-like robots, to help teach them their roles. But she is following a prepared script. Who then is the robot? SF is full of robots, but their intelligence and interior life is usually a given (or at least as much of a given as the interior life of any of the other characters). Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett take a long hard look at the overall argument in their 1981 collection The Mind’s I.

Schrödinger’s Cat has long bothered quantum mechanics. Put a cat in a box with some poison that has a 50:50 chance of killing it. Is the cat dead, alive, or somehow both before you observe it? Here Margaret Wilkinson, in “If He Wakes”, has a protagonist who does not want to ask a fateful question, for fear of causing the very incident she is asking after. Greg Egan’s 1992 novel Quarantine explores different aspects of what happens when you open that box, and Jo Walton’s moving 2014 novel My Real Children explores a whole two lifetimes of superimposed consequences.

Several hundred years before Einstein, Galileo had a way with thought experiments. One, Galileo’s ship, shows that we could be enclosed in a ship and unaware of our motion relative to the sea; today we have this experience in cars, trains, and planes all the time. Claire Dean’s “People Watching” uses this idea to play games with the reader’s perspective: we are not where we think we are.

In “Monkey Business”, Ian Watson builds a world where the proverbial randomly typing monkeys are being monitored for their Shakespearean output. His world is growing more complex as a whole infrastructure is being built up to support the monkeys and the analysis of their outputs; there are even different factions of philosophical arguments about the success criteria. In 1941, Jorge Luis Borges published his story “The Library of Babel”, sufficient to file away all the monkeys’ outputs. William Goldbloom Bloch’s 2008 treatise The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel captures the sheer Vastness of this endeavour, along with other bizarre properties.

Sandra Alland’s “Equivalence” is based on Einstein’s Equivalence Principle: enclosed in a lift, you can’t tell if the lift is stationary on the ground and force pressing you down is gravity, or if the lift is in space and accelerating upwards. In the story, an acrobat who performs drops with aerial silk is confined in a windowless room.

Robin Ince’s story “The Child in the Lock” is based (mostly) on the philosophical argument about The Drowning Child: if we saw a drowning child, we would save it, even at cost to ourselves, so why don’t we spend at least as much saving the out of sight starving millions? The protagonist comes to a different conclusion: they don’t save the child, for several mutually inconsistent reasons that sound all too plausible. Although this story borders on horror, Ince gets humour in early with the line “Tom had been an actor but decided to take a break from it as he’d always been keen to get into telemarketing”. The story also obliquely refers to The Spider in the Urinal, where the best of intentions can lead to the worst of outcomes, or, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Meaning well is not enough. There is a small sub-genre of SF stories about going back in time to kill Hitler, which just makes things worse.

Adam Roberts, in “Keep it Dark”, is trying out a novel explanation of Olber’s paradox, or why is the sky dark at night? If the universe were infinite and homogeneous, every line of sight should eventually end on the surface of a star: although they look smaller when they are further away, there are many more of them. Roberts goes for a solution based on the latest physics. One famous SF story about the sky being dark at night, but not as dark as expected, is Isaac Asimov’s 1941 novellette, “Nightfall”. And Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 story “The Nine Billion Names of God” has the night sky getting darker than usual, with one of the best last lines of a short story.

The book finishes as it starts, with another of Einstein’s thought experiments, here, chasing a beam of light, never catching it, but experiencing time dilation. Anneliese Mackintosh, with “Interia”, studies the time dilation of dying.

Thought X is a good entry in the long tradition of basing fiction on scientific fact. Here we have a wide range of thought experiments and paradoxes, with stories questioning, stretching, and interpreting them, then after-words explaining the scientific basis. The lucky reader thus gets the best of both worlds.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

fantasy sky

The view out our front window is very pleasant, but nothing particularly special.  Or so I thought.
our apple tree (left) combines with the neighbour’s tree (right), leaving a small gap of sky

Yesterday evening, however, I was sitting reading Neil Gaiman’s The View From the Cheap Seats, about how he grew up reading science fiction, and how important these imaginary worlds are.  Well, I too grew up reading science fiction, and many of his imaginary worlds intersect with mine, so my head was full of resonances.

I looked out the window into the evening gloaming.  The trees formed a dark border as the pale sky beyond shone through the gap.  In my primed state of mind, it was a fantasy scene, combined from many tales of forests, and with a hint of one of Anne Sudworth’s magical light painting overlaid.

As the evening drew on, the scene grew darker, the trees blacker, the sky dimmer, but the feeling persisted.  Eventually, some strips of cloud moved across the sky, and the scene flipped.  It was no longer a fantastical scene in my mind, but now science fictional: the gap in the trees now looked to me like a striped gas giant planet, viewed from a nearby tree-covered moon.

a gas giant glimpsed through the trees
This is what it’s often like in my head.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

another fine mess

“I got us into this mess and I will get us out” — Theresa May

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” — Albert Einstein

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Mar a lago - dollah cheetah - Trumpo!

Opera as protest medium!

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Monday, 12 June 2017

is non-existence damaging?

First real problem with the Amazon dispute resolution process; they are usually very quick to refund after a bogus seller tries something on.  However, this time the seller used a bogus UPS tracking number, and claimed item was delivered.  Fortunately, we have CCTV evidence to show that it wasn’t.  However, when trying to submit a claim through Amazon, the “item not delivered” option is “helpfully” greyed out, because of the “evidence” of delivery.  (Note to software developers – greyed out options are always frustrating when they are the one you actually want/need!  Since this is a claims process, there are bound to be weird side cases.)  I had to submit a claim saying the item was “damaged” (is non-existence damaging?)  Let’s see what happens next…

Update: 72 hours later, a message from Amazon says I’ve been reimbursed – so that worked nicely despite my having to use an inappropriate option!

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Sunday, 11 June 2017

The what?

This article almost makes the misery worth it:
The Book of Jeremy Corbin
And it came to pass, in the land of Britain, that the High Priestess went unto the people and said, Behold, I bring ye tidings of great joy. For on the eighth day of the sixth month there shall be a general election. 
And the people said, Not another one. 
And they waxed wroth against the High Priestess and said, Didst thou not sware, even unto seven times, that thou wouldst not call a snap election? 
And the High Priestess said, I know, I know. But Brexit is come upon us, and I must go into battle against the tribes of France, Germany, and sundry other holiday destinations. And I must put on the armor of a strong majority in the people’s house. Therefore go ye out and vote.
And the elders rose up and said to the young people, If ye choose Jeremy, he will bring distress in your toils and wailing upon your streets. Do ye not remember the nineteen-seventies?
And the young people said, The what?

Read the whole thing; it's delicious.

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Saturday, 10 June 2017

oncoming train

Oh, wait.  The Tories are getting in bed with the DUP to cling on desperately to power.
May to form 'government of certainty' with DUP backing
Cancel my comment about the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.  It was an oncoming train.

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Friday, 9 June 2017

Nicola Sturgeon nails it again

Sturgeon: 'Reckless' Tories put party ahead of country 
The damage the Tories have done to the stability and reputation of the UK cannot be overstated. In less than a year, they have caused chaos on an industrial scale. 
They recklessly forced through an EU referendum, they then embarked on a disastrous Brexit strategy, deciding to remove Scotland and the UK from the single market with no idea and no plan for what would come next. 
They were so arrogant they thought they could do anything and get away with it... They have consistently put the interests of the Tory party ahead of the interests of the country

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hung Parliament

The headline says "hung Parliament". Best news I've seen in the long year since last June's referendum.

Although it might not be hung enough to oust the hard Brexiteers...

But, it might be hung enough to mean we have to do it all over again in a few months!
Hung Parliament: Q&A guide to what happens when no-one wins the election

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Monday, 5 June 2017

there should be fail-safes in place

no longer the go-to advice to computer users

British Airways says IT chaos was caused by human error 
an engineer disconnected a power supply, with the major damage caused by a surge when it was reconnected.
but the commentators are sceptical:
an email leaked to the media last week suggested that a contractor doing maintenance work inadvertently switched off the power supply. 
The email said: "This resulted in the total immediate loss of power to the facility, bypassing the backup generators and batteries... After a few minutes of this shutdown, it was turned back on in an unplanned and uncontrolled fashion, which created physical damage to the systems and significantly exacerbated the problem." 
But the BBC's transport correspondent, Richard Westcott, has spoken to IT experts who are sceptical that a power surge could wreak such havoc on the data centres. 
BA has two data centres about a kilometre apart. There are question marks over whether a power surge could hit both. Also, there should be fail-safes in place, our correspondent said.

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Saturday, 3 June 2017

book review: Weinberg on Writing

Gerald M. Weinberg.
Weinberg on Writing: the fieldstone method.
Dorset House. 2006

In this slim book, Weinberg delivers his advice to aspiring technical writers, based on the metaphor of building a dry stone wall from “fieldstones”:

  • Write only on what you are passionate about.
  • Gather relevant pieces (the fieldstones) all the time, piled up ready for later use.
  • When you want to write on a topic, select relevant fieldstones from your collection.
  • Assemble them into the right order to make an essay, a report, or a book.
  • Avoid writer’s block by controlling the number of fieldstones you are considering together.

This is all very sensible advice, and pithily delivered. Possibly the most interesting part of the book is where it goes all meta, as he demonstrates how to assemble the fieldstones into a sensible order by doing just that to assemble the description.

The fieldstone method is a pragmatic process for writing: you are doing it all the time, from gathering small snippets, to writing entire books. It won’t work for those times when you just have to write on a topic that you are not passionate about. Weinberg is privileged enough that this has not been a problem for him: he “cheated” at college to be allowed to write on his own topics, then in industry he was lucky enough that his boss took his first somewhat off topic report seriously, and now as a consultant he can write what pleases him. However, even in a non-voluntary scenario, if you have the stones, you can probably pull off an acceptable piece of work using this approach.

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Tuesday, 30 May 2017

transport of delight

As suggested in the comments, I bet some of these “schemes” can be explained by a desired to soak up grant money, or meets targets, or something.  But still, WTF?!?
Britain’s Worst Cycle Lanes: Photos of That Olympics Legacy In Action 
The Warrington Cycle Campaign has been documenting cycle lanes and the people and things that block them. 
Essex County Council is promoting cycling as an effective and enjoyable form of aerobic exercise to reduce the incidence heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity in the county. Unfortunately it was discovered that, rather than pedalling briskly, Harlow’s cyclists were freewheeling down this gently sloping path. To counter this, signs have been introduced at regular intervals requiring cyclists to get off and walk.

[h/t Danny Yee's blog]

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Sunday, 28 May 2017

woodpecker spotting

We glimpsed a woodpecker on one of our birdfeeders this morning.  We couldn’t see it very well, as it was behind the feeder (so we have no idea how it was even hanging on), but it had a red head and a black and white body.  I confidently said “Lesser spotted”, then wondered if I was right.

Off to the RSPB website.

The Lesser spotted does have a red head and black and white body, but the RSPB site notes that it is the “least common of the three woodpeckers” in the UK, so it seems an unlikely identification.  Also, the one we saw had a longer beak that this:
Lesser spotted woodpecker

So maybe not.  The site says three woodpeckers.  I know of the Lesser and Great spotted, but what’s the third?  The RSPB site tells me it is the Green woodpecker:
Green woodpecker

Red head: check.  Long beak: check.  Black and white body: nope.  It definitely wasn’t that green.  But scrolling through the pictures on that page reveals the juvenile Green:
juvenile Green woodpecker, in a strangely semitransparent picture

Okay, that’s got more black and white markings, but it’s still seems rather too green.  But, maybe: it was only a short obscured glimpse.

I checked out the Great spotted, just for completeness.
Great spotted woodpecker

No red head, so definitely not.  But scrolling through the pictures on that page yielded:

juvenile Great spotted woodpecker

Red head: check.  Long beak: check.  Black and white body: check.  Okay, so I now, even more confidently, identify what we saw as a juvenile Great spotted woodpecker.

And being a juvenile explains why it was trying the bird feeder: it knew no better.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

by Jove!

You think you know something, then you see it from a whole new perspective, and it changes completely!

Jupiter from the bottom

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.