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 Or Not discussed when tech in SF becomes outdated, and how to write about the near future without running into problems.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.

For all my film reviews, see my main website.

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.

Friday, 10 February 2017

OCR tastes sour

Fun OCR error: the text said “demons hide in words”; the OCR said “(lemons hide in words”.

When life gives you lemons, make literature?

[Later: Wow! Does everything exists on teh internet?]

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Thursday, 9 February 2017

film review: Frozen

Elsa and her younger sister Anna are princesses who love to play together. Elsa has a special power: she can control and shape ice. She uses this power to make ice slides for Anna. But one day there is an accident, and she injures Anna. Fortunately the trolls can cure Anna, but Elsa and her parents are devastated. She is kept in solitude, so that her powers can never hurt anyone again. But when her parents die, she becomes queen. Anna falls in love with handsome Prince Hans visiting for the coronation, and asks Elsa’s permission to marry. Elsa refuses, and there is an argument, which leads to her accidentally freezing her whole country. She runs away in despair, but Anna follows, determined to rescue her sister.

This re-imagining of the Ice Queen changes the fairy tale considerably, and for the better. It subverts two key fairy tale tropes. First, don’t trust love at first sight: get to know your prospective partner first. What you find out about them may make you realise you made a mistake. Second, an act of true love need not be performed by the hero to save the heroine. Since fairy tales, today served up as Disney animations, form an important part of how we parse the world, these are important and useful messages.

an act of true love

Given these good and overt messages, though, it’s worthwhile digging a bit deeper, to see if there are other, less obvious, messages being reinforced.

Firstly, Prince Hans claims to be the youngest of 13 brothers. Does his father have a harem, a poor wife who has borne at least 13 children, or a maybe a series of wives? In any case, I felt his kingdom to be in dire need of knowledge about birth control. An heir and a spare should be fine. This would have two advantages: the queen would have some time to do more than pop out princes, and 13th sons with no role at home wouldn’t get into mischief.

ignorance ending badly

Secondly, it’s clear that Elsa’s parents have never read any fairy tales. Hiding Elsa away, and forcing her to deny her powers – that always ends badly. And Anna’s memories of her own injury are removed by the trolls, to protect her, and this is taken to be a good thing. But instead, it causes her great pain, and eventually puts her in grave danger. Unable to remember the accident, she can’t understand why her adored big sister will no longer play with her. And unaware of Elsa’s powers, she is taken by surprise by events at the coronation, and is put in danger during the attempted rescue. Ignorance is not bliss, yet keeping someone in the dark to protect them is a recurring trope in many stories. It doesn’t protect them, it infantilises them.

Despite these caveats, the film was an enjoyable way to spend the post Christmas lunch turkey food coma.

Oh, and there is also a comic moose, a patronising lunk, and an hilarious snowman. And some songs.

For all my film reviews, see my main website.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

every second counts

Who wants to be second?

The German one, about their “best leader”, has bite.

Come to EU. It’s huge. It’s the greatest EU in the world!

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Saturday, 4 February 2017

sequestering carbon, several books at a time LXVII

The latest batch:

One of those big fat red volumes (they are volume 1 and volume 2, marked on the front covers if not on the spines) contains our chapter on in materio reservoir computing.

Friday, 3 February 2017

we call it fiction because it isn’t fact

Ursula K Le Guin awesome as ever:

Ursula Le Guin on fiction vs. ‘alternative facts’ 
A recent letter … compares a politician’s claim to tell “alternative facts” to the inventions of science fiction.  The comparison won’t work.  We fiction writers make up stuff.  Some of it clearly impossible, some of it realistic, but none of it real – all invented, imagined – and we call it fiction because it isn’t fact.

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Thursday, 2 February 2017

I have in my hand a piece of ...

My good friends, a British Prime Minister has returned from the USA bringing trade with honour. I believe it is trade for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.

[Just in case some people don't get the reference.]

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Tuesday, 31 January 2017

open letter sent to my MP

Dear Lucy Frazer MP

Parliament is debating the Brexit bill.

The referendum result is not binding on Parliament.  Parliament must do its job and vote in the best interests of the entire country.

The world is a very different place from what it was in June.  There is a demagogue in charge of the USA attempting to become a fascist dictator.  Some of the parallels with 1933 Germany are frankly terrifying.

Now is not the time for the UK to “go it alone”.  We need to stand with our European allies, not move towards appeasement of the next fascist dictatorship.

I urge you to vote for the interests of our country, and of the world.  This is not “going against the will of the electorate”.  That was then.  This is now.   The UK cannot afford to leave its allies and partners during the current state of this new broken world order.  Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.  Let us not repeat it.  In particular, let us not repeat it from the wrong side.

Yours sincerely

Monday, 30 January 2017

ridiculous hypotheticals

Trump is Wrong: Torture Doesn’t Work 
if a terrorist claims to have tied your baby to a timebomb, don’t “#torture” him. Start by asking yourself, “Wait…do I even have a baby?” And then remind yourself that ignorant men will use any ridiculous hypothetical to convince you to throw science and your humanity in the garbage. Don’t fall for it.

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Sunday, 29 January 2017

“I just showed that the bomb was there.”

Nerds enabling fascism?
Trump Knows You Better Than You Know Yourself 
with a mere ten “likes” as input his model could appraise a person’s character better than an average coworker. With seventy, it could “know” a subject better than a friend; with 150 likes, better than their parents. With 300 likes, Kosinski’s model could predict a subject’s answers better than their partner. With even more likes it could exceed what a person thinks they know about themselves. 
The world has been turned upside down. The Brits are leaving the EU; Trump rules America. And in Stanford the Polish researcher Michal Kosinski, who indeed tried to warn of the danger of using psychological targeting in a political setting, is still getting accusatory emails. “No,” says Kosinski quietly, shaking his head, “this is not my fault. I did not build the bomb. I just showed that it was there.”

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Saturday, 28 January 2017

triumph and disaster are the same thing

Oh, so true
Fintan O’Toole: Brexit resurrects the English cult of heroic failure 
While everyone else is screaming “Stop! You’re headed for disaster,” the stiff lips part just enough to say, “Ah, but we will treat it as a triumph and never breathe a word about our loss.”

[via Danny Yee's blog]

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Friday, 27 January 2017

book review: Fundamental Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences

David C. Howell.
Fundamental Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences: 8th edn.
Wadsworth. 2014

This textbook on statistics is intended for students of the behavioural sciences. I have been co-teaching a module on statistics for a Masters programme in Human-Centred Interactive Technologies, and this is one of the recommended books. I used it as one of the texts to reference as I prepared my lectures.

Since it is a textbook, I have not read it from cover to cover. However, I have read considerably more of it than I originally intended. Each time I looked up a particular technique, and started reading, I just seemed to keep on reading. The book is very well written and extremely engaging.

It also has the right depth for students who are technically literate, but not mathematicians. Many statistics books can be either all theory, targeted at mathematicians, or all ‘magic’, targeted at those who want recipes rather than understanding. This book hits the sweet spot of formalism combined with pragmatism with great verve: providing background and context so that the workings of the various tests make sense, with sufficient technicalities to inform rather than confuse.

Some of the included vignettes demonstrate the care that is needed. There is one tale of a renowned statistician who had invented various tests, yet still got the number of degrees of freedom wrong on one of them. These precision tools are hard to invent (so probably best not to invent your own!), but once they have been, they can be taught and used with relative ease. This is how we progress.

Highly recommended.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

see their comment on their #1 lookup

Did a dictionary diss Trump team’s ‘alternative facts’?
Merriam-Webster poked at the Trump administration through its Twitter feed, appearing to take senior adviser Kellyanne Conway to task for saying that press secretary Sean Spicer was offering up “alternative facts” about the crowd size at the inauguration. 
“A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality,” the dictionary company said in a pinned tweet that linked to a Merriam-Webster posting about how lookups for the word “fact” spiked after Conway’s comment.

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Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Monday, 23 January 2017

on the internet, nobody knows you're a god

This is a meme doing the rounds at the moment.

It is possible to be in both these states at the same time...

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Sunday, 22 January 2017

Saturday, 21 January 2017

film review: Arrival

The aliens have arrived, in 12 giant mysterious ships dotted around the planet. They are enigmatic, but seem to want to communicate. The Americans enlist the help of academic linguist Louise Banks [Amy Adams] and physicist Ian Donnelly [Jeremy Renner]. They gradually manage to establish communication, but does that important ambiguous word mean “weapon” or “tool”? Louise keeps having flashes of her life with her daughter Hannah, who dies tragically young: these images may hold the key to deciphering the aliens’ intent.

This is a very cerebral film, with a lot of talking about alien language and arguing about alien motives, with a small amount of misguided military action: the CGI goes into making the aliens nicely alien, not into swooping spacecraft and big explosions. The gradual increase in the protagonists’ language knowledge and confidence, and the sheer intellectual slog that involves getting that competence, are conveyed well. This description might make the film sound dull and slow, but the plot moves forward briskly and engrossingly. There’s the obligatory twist, which I am pleased to say I spotted before the reveal, but in truth it wasn’t that much before. It’s one of those interesting twists that might make you want to see the film again, to re-evaluate some of the events.

deciphering alien language

Despite the leading character being a woman, the film only barely passes the Bechdel test: her child is female, and they sometimes talk about things other than the father.

For a film about language and communication, there are a couple of places where that communication is a little opaque. Early on, the military is trying to enlist Louise, and threatening to go to another linguist if she doesn’t agree to their terms. She challenges them to ask the other linguist for the translation of the Sanskrit word for war. When they come back with the answer, it is given inaudibly against an overwhelming background of helicopter blades. I looked it up afterwards; it doesn’t seem to be germane to why they chose her over the other guy. The other communication incident, which is deliberate, is that a turning point in the film has Louise persuade a Chinese general to break off hostilities, by speaking a key sentence to him in Mandarin, and we get no subtitles. It works, even though we don’t know what was said. Again, I looked it up afterwards; the sentence is meaningful, but its content doesn’t actually matter, only that it works. In a sense, these two events seem more profound precisely because I didn’t know exactly what is said.

Overall, I really enjoyed this. It is nice to see people solving problems with their brains rather than with their fists and guns, for a change.

For all my film reviews, see my main website.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

book review: Just One Damned Thing After Another

Jodi Taylor.
Just One Damned Thing After Another.
Accent Press. 2013

Dr Madeleine Maxwell, known as Max to all, is an historian recruited by St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. St Mary’s have some time travel machines, allowing the historians to go back and observe historically significant events as they happen. This requires nerve, and training. Max has the former in spades; St Mary’s provide the latter. But there’s more at stake than Max realises.

This is a mish-mash of genres, involving history, time-travel, boot-camp training, romance, intrigue, tragedy, and more. It is a mish-mash in a good way, as Max, nobody’s fool and nobody’s patsy, powers her way through increasingly bizarre and traumatic incidents, including serving in a WWI battlefield hospital, dodging dinosaurs and more in the Cretaceous, and visiting the Libray of Alexandria under somewhat trying conditions.

Everyone at St Mary’s is eccentric and weird, but also competent, which is always good to see: competence makes eccentricity funny, rather than annoying. St Mary’s does seem to have a rather small staff for what it does (although significantly more than the Gerry Anderson school of staffing levels). And I never fully understood its original business model: the time travel is a secret, so how do the historians’ observations of past events contribute to currrent knowledge? No matter; by the end Max has come up with a new business model which is much more effective. If the villains let them pursue it. Which of course they won’t.

I initially dipped my toe in this series, buying only the first entry. But before I was half-way through this compulsively readable book, I ordered the next three.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

book review: The Last Dragonslayer

Jasper Fforde.
The Last Dragonslayer.
Hodder & Stoughton. 2010

Magic is gradually fading away in the Ununited Kingdom. And the number of dragons is decreasing. Jennifer Strange, a foundling sold into indentured servitude to a wizarding agency, finds herself in charge when its owner disappears, and is having trouble keeping the wizards employed. When a wizard has a vision that the Last Dragon will be killed by the Last Dragonslayer next week, her troubles are just beginning.

I came to this with high expectations, given how much I have enjoyed the clever craziness of Fforde’s other two series: Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes. I was sadly disappointed. Those other two series have a solid underpinning theme (books, and nursery rhymes, respectively) and the overlaying surreality feeds off these, rocketing off in marvellously unexpected directions. The Last Dragonslayer is all surreality, but with nothing underlying it. That removes nearly all the opportunities for cleverness, replacing it mostly with silliness.

A shame. I’ll leave this series, and wait for the next Thursday Next.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.