Saturday, 31 January 2009

A new novelist

Though my fiction reading only rarely returns to the same novelist, my science fiction reading regularly returns to authors I've read before, sometimes for years before (Iain M. Banks, Alastair Reynolds, ...). So it's always interesting to read a new author, in this case Chris Beckett and his short story collection The Turing Test.

The collection of 14 stories ranges quite widely taking in a number of common science fiction themes including artificial intelligence (as the collection title suggests), virtual reality and time-travel. But rather than revel in the high-tech, the stories always focus on individuals and their experience in the worlds that the author creates.

While most explore quite separate universes, a few make repeat returns to the same universe, typically following the same characters. The most intriguing of these is set in a future, abandoned London which is roamed virtually by disembodied minds but also houses a few remaining "physicals". As well as being good science fiction, these stories put real characters at their core; in one, a young boy has his "virtual-ness" demonstrated to him by an elderly physical; in another, the same physical makes a melancholy journey deep into London to reminisce about her childhood.

While all of the stories are entertaining, a number suffer from a common problem. The author doesn't seem content with introducing a single idea which is then explored, the normal pattern for science fiction short stories. Instead, he sets up with one grand idea then, before working this one out, introduces another one but, because these are short stories, is then unable to do either justice. For example, one story ("Jazamine in the Green Wood") gradually sketches out a future in which a disease has killed almost all men. The story begins brilliantly, with the world viewed from the perspective of a boy growing up in this gender-distorted world. Then, just as things are getting interesting, the novelist throws in another character who has travelled to this "reality" by using mind-altering drugs. Huh? In another example ("Valour"), an exploration of virtual relationships in a segregated future suddenly, and unconvincingly, introduces the philosophy of an alien culture, and manages to defeat what was shaping up as an interesting premise. This problem only occurs in a few of the stories, but it's a strange quirk for a short story writer. Introducing such disparate ideas would work well in a novel, especially since they're quite imaginative, but it just doesn't work in the handful of pages available here. It's also a shame to see what were great openings sidelined by inexplicable plotlines.

That said, most of the short stories work well, and all (bar an opaque time-travel one) create really imaginative worlds. I'll definitely be tracking down Beckett's first novel now, and will be on the lookout for more of his short stories.

Friday, 23 January 2009

More Schmap success

Further to the earlier message about the Schmap Seattle Guide, another of my photographs has been included in their guide to Monterey and Carmel ...

This time round the photograph that they've selected is actually not a bad one. It's a view of the Pacific shoreline just next to Garrapata State Park. There's a kelp bed immediately adjacent to the shore, so the sea's very interesting to look at. And in the distance, the photograph shows clouds forming on the hilltops as moist sea air rises up and crests the hills. I did a really good (if injurious) hike in Garrapata while I was there.

As before, despite the fact that my photograph is only one of dozens "carefully selected", I've retained a screenshot for posterity.

Thursday, 22 January 2009


As of 4am this morning, I'm an uncle to Ava, daughter to my brother Duncan and his partner Jennifer ...

The above is Ava about an hour after she was born, with Mum visible in the background. Both are apparently doing well.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Follower widget

Following Google's advice ...

"We highly recommend that you write a post about your followers widget and encourage all readers to become a follower."

... I've added the "follower" widget to my page. This in spite of having a big fat zero followers and merely drawing attention to it. Still, I notice a number of other blogs have started using it, so here goes anyway.


Given all that's gone before, I'm not really surprised that Obama aced his inauguration speech yesterday. One of his greatest assets is his ability to speak authoritatively and intelligently, and he didn't drop the ball on this score yesterday.

What he did do that was perhaps surprising was, essentially, put the boot into the policies and failings of the previous administration. While thanking the Bush administration at the very beginning of his speech, and never making any directly critical statements, he very clearly drew a line under the Bush years. And, damningly, he did so not from a political standpoint, but from the perspective of the rule of law and the founding principles of the United States. It must have been an interesting experience for George Bush, sitting just a few metres away, hearing the depredations of his administration described in such unambiguous terms.

However, Obama's speech served only in part to underscore the problems inherited from the previous administration. To a greater degree it was more memorable for its honest laying out of the difficulties that the United States is facing, and Obama's plans in (extremely) rough outline for dealing with these. These positive aspects were more important and stirring than the rebukes dealt to the Bush administration.

Overall, I thought it was a really impressive performance. Judging from what limited information I've gathered from the media, some have already criticised it for having no stand-out sound-bites or definitive far-reaching policy statements. However, I'm not sure about what would count as such a milestone policy, or that Obama would actually be thanked for staking one out. Instead, I suspect that he'd be on the receiving end of oppositely-aimed complaint had he laid out some specific optimistic target.

While I can't remember the speech in detail, a couple of specific points that stuck out for me merit mention:

  • without mentioning it by name, Obama suggested that stem cell technology would be allowed to flourish under his administration

  • Obama was quite specific on engaging with the Muslim world, trying to address its ordinary members rather than its leaders

  • rather than appeal solely to the Christian base of the US, the speech acknowledged and reached out to other faiths, there was even a welcome nod to "non-believers"

  • there was a lot of strong language for science and technology, specifically where these mapped onto environmental or economic goals (though no "we choose to to go the moon")

  • In passing, while the invocation of the inauguration was overblown theological rhetoric from a known conservative windbag, the benediction, though still religious in content, was much more inclusive and invoked civil rights as much as the Almighty. Not surprising given that it was delivered by a prominent (and elderly) minister and activist, but he carried it off with a lot of dignity and even some humour. Though African American himself, he also mentioned the native Americans, a group whose absence from the US political stage is only rarely remarked upon.

    Tuesday, 20 January 2009

    Pet peeve

    It being the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth (and the 150th since the publication of Origin), there's a lot in the press about him this year. Today's piece is by Steve Jones and appears in the Guardian, and while it's perfectly acceptable, it makes a point that always annoys me.

    Jones notes that "men do not descend from chimps, although the two share a common ancestor". This is, of course, completely correct. Both species are descended from a common third species which (almost certainly) no longer exists. This observation is one that frequently comes up whenever evolution is presented for public consumption, usually to counter the evolution-hostile counter-refrain.

    That people often react to evolutionary biology with the jibe that "men are descended from chimps" is indicative of the discomfort that many feel when it comes to the facts of biology. The underlying implication is that evolution can't be true since it means humans are "just" animals, with all of the attendant consequences for society, morality, etc. This may not be a logical argument against evolution, but it articulates deep-seated "fears" about how cherished notions are undercut by science.

    Responding to these sentiments with the correct-but-fatuous point that, no, we're not descended from chimps does nothing to diffuse the underlying concerns that people have. In fact, it's completely missing the point, and is simply liable to have you branded a smartarse. What's more, while we aren't descended from chimps, we're almost certainly descended from something that, to the untrained eye, looked just like a chimp (or monkey or ape). This is the more important point that's being missed by glib, zoologically-correct ripostes.

    In fact, how one deals with the deeper point that sets human society and morality against the hard lessons of biology is far from clear. Hence the ongoing research on topics such as the evolution of altruism. While much progress has been made (which can be crudely summarised as "tit for tat"), definitive answers are still outside our reach.

    Anyway, this is just me ranting against a pet peeve in biology that I've seen come up time and time again. Almost always answered in the clever-clogs manner that today's article illustrates [*]. The most helpful response is to think about what's really being targeted by anti-science "arguments", and to respond to that properly instead of being an antagonising pedant.

    [*] To be fair to Jones, it's only a passing remark in his article, and has no real bearing on its substance (which has actually more to do with Darwin's family, and his concerns about inbreeding). Still, it was the straw that broke this camel's back.

    Friday, 16 January 2009

    Schmap Seattle Guide

    A few weeks ago I got a message from one Emma Williams, an editor at a company called Schmap. Anyway, she'd perused our Seattle photographs and liked one of our pictures enough to shortlist it for inclusion in some guide to Seattle. It wasn't exactly one of our better Seattle shots, but I said "yes" anyway. Fast-forward to today, and it's been included (along, it must be said, with a large number of other photographs) in the guide. It took me ages to find our photo, but for posterity I've taken a screenshot of the webpage showing it. Anyway, ...

    :: Schmap Seattle Sixth Edition: Photo Inclusion

    Hi Andrew,

    I am delighted to let you know that your submitted photo
    has been selected for inclusion in the newly released sixth
    edition of our Schmap Seattle Guide:

    Seattle Waterfront

    If you use an iPhone or iPod touch, then this same link
    will take you directly to your photo in the iPhone version
    of our guide. On a desktop computer, you can still see
    exactly how your photo is displayed and credited in the
    iPhone version of our guide at:

    Seattle Waterfront

    Thanks so much for letting us include your photo - please
    enjoy the guide!

    Best regards,

    Emma Williams,
    Managing Editor, Schmap Guides

    Tuesday, 13 January 2009

    Sometimes you can go back

    Re-caught the 1983 film Local Hero over the weekend. We'd been faintly interested in it after seeing a short 25th anniversary feature on it which took the director, Bill Forsyth, to a special screening of the film in the small Aberdeenshire town where it was filmed, Pennan.

    Revisiting films that you've personally judged "classics" in the past can be a hazardous activity. Inescapably, such judgements were made when lifetime-film-viewings were at a lower base, and frequently before a film's context/influences could reasonably be judged. Furthermore, sometimes a film is remembered fondly because of associations with a particular time rather than on its own merits. For these sorts of reasons, I've still unreasonable attachments to rather dumb films like Love at First Bite that I saw when I was growing up.

    However, I can honestly report that Local Hero completely survived a return trip. Despite the passage of years, and imitators, it still stands up perfectly. At the very least, that's testament to the enduring importance of good screen-writing, characterisation and an ensemble cast. That, and successfully combining humour with (a degree of) romance, which, as I've remarked before, isn't easy to pull-off. The film's (extremely) soft sell on environmentalism has also been rewarded by some changes in public attitudes as the years have passed. Similarly, the dissatisfaction experienced by the central character when comparing his life in the city with that in rural Scotland is still resonant, especially given the growth of movements that focus on things like work-life balance and "community".

    I particularly (re-)warmed to the film's subversive streak of revealing that the rural residents, far from being "local yokels", are business savvy and have low-key yearnings for the material trappings of modern life. It's this which gives, to me anyway, the film a somewhat more realistic (and humourous) base on which its whimsy is founded. I absolutely hate it when films or books unquestionably present simple country-living as wholesome and rich in wisdom, when the reality is always more complicated and interesting.

    Anyhow, it's very pleasing to be able to report Local Hero as remaining firmly in the upper echelons of my favourite films.

    As a sidenote, the DVD contained a recent interview with the director in which (among other things) he revealed that the film's final shot (of the village's quayside red telephone booth ringing) was actually only added as a quick fix to placate the US studio that part-funded the film. They felt that the previous ending (the return of the main character to his soulless city home) was too downbeat, and requested some sort of jollying-up. Keen not to do this, the director used some spare footage to quickly create the ending that the film was ultimately released with.

    I thought this was interesting because I've always thought that the slightly ambiguous shot, while clearly interpretable in a positive way, was a really great way to finish up. A much more satisfying close for what's essentially a feel-good film than most similar films manage. While they didn't think of it themselves (and would likely have ruined the film if given free rein), the film's backers were, perhaps surprisingly, able to affect an improvement. OK, so sometimes the moneymen aren't completely crazy ...

    Sunday, 11 January 2009

    Christmas itinerary

    Purely to supplant dodgy memory ...
    • 23rd December: arrive in Carnoustie, 8 pm; discover parents' e-mail woes stem from not paying their AOL bills!

    • 24th December: last-minute Christmas shopping; confined to quarters by encroaching cold

    • 25th December: much recovered from cold; took a walk between East Haven and Arbroath; Christmas dinner with full family, including Jennifer, Gillian and Caitlin

    • 26th December: visited Colin and Catherine; travelled to Arbroath to see Graham's family; visited Duncan and Jennifer in the evening

    • 27th December: travelled to Alford to see Graham, Teresa and family

    • 28th December: morning hike up the Bennachie Hills to Mither Tap; afternoon saw Dave, Suze and family (all inclusive) visit my parents' house; evening out with Dave and Suze in the Aboukir; much drunken nonsense spoken by me

    • 29th December: traditional pub lunch with Phil in the Counting House, Dundee; visited Phil's parents afterwards; visited Stuart, Gillian and Caitlin in the evening

    • 30th December: spent most of the day shooting the breeze with parents; one last look at Carnoustie High School (1983-1989) before its demolition; return to Southampton, 10 pm

    A book of interest

    Finally finished the last of C's birthday book stash over the Christmas break. The last turned out to be the 2008 novel A Person of Interest by the American writer Susan Choi.

    The novel begins with a deadly explosion in the office of a successful mathematics professor at a midwestern university. The neighbouring office houses Lee, a tenured but near-retirement professor who, until the bomb, is slowly drifting into career obscurity. Tired and solitary after two divorces, Lee suddenly finds himself in the public eye. This draws Lee to the attention of the bomber who reveals in a letter to Lee that he was once a colleague. Although not supplying his identity, events in Lee's early career at graduate school furnish an obvious candidate, and one that reopens unhealed wounds in Lee's life. His first marriage, to the now long-dead Aileen, was actually her second. An affair with Lee broke up Aileen's first marriage to the evangelical Christian Gaither, with the repercussion that Aileen never saw her son again. Lee's indifference to this lost son ultimately cost him his marriage to Aileen, the realisation of which gradually dawns on Lee as his thoughts return to Gaither after the bombing. However, embarrassed by these events in his life, Lee withholds the letter from the police and, now lost in reflections on his early life with Aileen, Lee becomes an increasingly isolated figure, suspiciously so to the authorities. Consequently, when Lee's failure to disclose the letter comes to light, they identify him as a "person of interest", a label that attracts the unwelcome attention of both the press and his suspicious neighbours. Forced by twitchy administrators into a leave of absence from his university, Lee is increasingly viewed, de facto, as the bomber, just waiting for his status to switch to "suspect". Backed into a corner in large part by his own actions, Lee decides to track down Gaither by himself, determined to unmask him as the bomber and to lay to rest his ghosts from the past.

    Although the above may make this sound like a fairly conventional thriller novel, it's actually nothing of the sort. While its frame is that of a home-grown terrorism story based, it would seem, on the actions of the Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, most of the novel would be characterised as belonging to literary fiction. Lee digs deep into his past, uncovering, and for the first time, understanding his mistakes. Though Aileen is long-dead he has unfinished business with her, the sort that can only be resolved by the realisation of his past passive cruelty to her. So though the novel is, in small part, a conventional journey to "unmask the murderer", much more importantly its central character must unmask, if only to himself, his own misdeeds from the past. And, as such, it's an interesting and enjoyable read.

    There are moments where it's a bit of a trial to read though. Lee is not an especially likeable character, and his furtive activities are clearly going to attract the attention of the authorities. And, frustratingly for the reader, when he is finally labelled as a "person of interest", he just keeps digging. Making mistake after mistake in his dealings with otherwise supportive case officers, Lee becomes a character that you want to shake and say "how do you think this will look to everyone else?" to. But Lee isn't meant to an entirely sympathetic character, and I (latterly) read this "digging-in" as an important part of Choi's characterisation of him.

    Oddly, while remaining well-observed and in-depth on its characters, the novel loses its footing slightly on what would seem the more trivial task of plotting. The introduction of someone who is clearly an important figure in Lee's backstory is held back until late on, with no apparent justification other than to raise the reader's suspicions. It might have made more sense to ease this character in gradually throughout the novel. Suspicion of them could be retained, but it wouldn't seem so much like a rushed introduction. Also, and more bizarrely, when Lee finally does confront the bomber, he's at first whisked immediately away by the authorities, almost literally in front of the eyes of the bomber. They then prime him for a second meeting the next day, but I was left thinking that the bomber would surely have totally done a runner by then. This key confrontation scene was handled extremely clumsily, and thus left completely unconvincing. A bit of editorial input might have easily fixed this up. Not having a second meeting at all would have been my suggestion; as the thriller aspect is entirely secondary to the novel, having the feds unexpectedly swoop in at the appropriate moment would have been satisfactory.

    Anyway, notwithstanding the foregoing, this was a very enjoyable and "meaty" novel. Not at all the slender thriller that might be imagined from its ostensible subject matter. I don't know whether the novelist intended it as such, but it's a very successful marriage of wholesome literary fiction with mainstream thriller fiction. And much, much better than my last dip into Carole's birthday book pile.

    Having now reviewed said book pile, I realise that this isn't the last title in it. I've still got The Jane Austen Book Club to make peace with.

    Saturday, 10 January 2009


    We saw a great science documentary last night, Blast!, a Storyville production about the "Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope", BLAST.

    The telescope uses radiation in the far infra-red to microwave band to image young stars shrouded by dust as well as the evolution of so-called starburst galaxies, those in the heavy star-formation part of their history. Radiation in this band is impossible to measure at ground level because of atmospheric absorption, so the BLAST telescope was built to be carried by balloon at high altitude, hence the acronym.

    Although there was a fair bit of discussion about the science, it took a backseat to the exciting human story of the BLAST observations. After beginning with a flashforward to a seemingly disastrous Antarctic launch of BLAST, the film follows a multi-institute team of scientists through launch cycles in Sweden (launch 1) and Antarctica (launch 2). Many scientists (including students) are interviewed but attention focuses on two of the PIs, and much of the tale's drama comes from watching their reactions to the unfolding events.

    These include prolonged periods of bad weather that prevent launch; an errant balloon path from the Sweden launch that takes the recovery team deep into the Arctic; a focusing problem on the Sweden flight that blurs the data; the near-complete destruction of the telescope during its Arctic recovery; the separation from family endured by the scientists; the botched Antarctic launch already alluded to; and to top it off, a failed parachute release that leads to the telescope being dragged 200 km over the Antarctic ice before it can be recovered. The latter incident is particularly traumatic for the scientists because, while the limited flight data showed the mission to be a success, the astronomical data collected is stored on hard-drives contained within the telescope. So its successful recovery is absolutely paramount - no mean feat in the Antarctic wastes.

    Overall, it's one of those stories with so much drama (agony and ecstasy) that you couldn't make it up. The loss of the telescope in Antarctica is particularly wrenching. The film maker does a brilliant job here of presenting the viewer with a record that tracks the scientists as the euphoria that comes from knowing the telescope is firing on all cylinders gives way to utter desolation as the recovery plans (like the telescope) fall into pieces.

    The film maker also does a good job presenting science as a living, breathing job. As soon as BLAST is over, the researchers are discussing how to deal with the collected data. Their small team can't handle all of it, so they calculatedly cherry-pick the best bits, farming the rest out to the community to sort out. Then it's onto the next project ... As a working scientist, I can testify that this is exactly how it is. Science documentaries frequently present a subject as a "done deal", with only an occasional nod to the preliminary nature of any work, and the fact that research just keeps marching forwards. So this documentary was a joy to see, but that's Storyville all over really. They're always worth watching.

    In passing, there's even room in the documentary for occasional theological asides. The two PIs the film focuses on work well together, but couldn't be more different in this aspect. One is agnostic about any deeper meaning to the work, while the other is fervently Christian, and sees the work as both illuminating God's handiwork, and even watched over by the Good Lord. This latter point becomes particularly pertinent as the Antarctic drama unfolds.

    Obviously, I'd side with the first PI, but the second PI isn't a crazy, although I'm always struck by the specificity of the faith of scientists. I can certainly accept that the universe may have been built by "a higher power" (insofar as this, while not demonstrable, is at least possible), but how one draws succour from this for a particular faith is completely unclear to me. Just be a deist and be done with it!

    Tuesday, 6 January 2009

    Orion on the move

    Orion on the move
    Originally uploaded by Dr Yool
    Santa brought me a fancy remote for my DSLR, so I've been trying out assorted time-lapse experiments. This is one I did last night of the constellation of Orion moving across the sky for an hour. It came out a bit noisy, but I'll try again with a lower ISO some other night.

    Monday, 5 January 2009

    A "leading climate scientist" speaks

    Further to the ocean geoengineering review that I was involved with last year, just before Christmas all of the authors of that paper were invited to take part in a survey and to comment on the topic of geoengineering by The Independent. I didn't hear a peep back from the newspaper, but they published an article on the results of the survey ...
    From the numbers, it sounds like I was in the majority: that I thought a "Plan B" was necessary; and that I was less optimistic about the Earth's climate coping with anthropogenic change. As per usual, the survey's questions were to be answered YES/NO when a more nuanced response would have been better. Still, nuance isn't usually very helpful when communicating science, so perhaps it's best to be forced one way or the other.

    Aside from the main article, The Independent also published a selection of the comments it got back from "leading climate scientists", and somehow I made the grade. Although I was inexplicably attributed to a different research institute on a different continent ...