Sunday, 29 November 2009

New York story

I've managed to build up a bit of a backlog of books that I've read but not blogged. Nicely defeating my argument that if I've time to read them, I've easily time to write down something about them. Anyway, this one, Brooklyn by the Irish writer Colm Tóibín, I read way back while we were on holiday in early October, so it's going to be fun recalling details about it.

The novel tells the story of Eilis, a young woman living with her mother and older sister, Rose, in south-east Ireland in the 1950s. Struggling to find work at home, Eilis is offered a job in America through a family priest, a job that she clearly has to take. Apprehensive at first, then strongly homesick later, Eilis travels on her own to an alien New York where she becomes a shop assistant in an Italian department store in Brooklyn. Gradually, she finds her feet, both at work and in her new life in the United States. She's helped along the way by an attentive employer at work, a gruff but kind-hearted landlady and the watchful gaze of her Irish priest. This support, together with her own tenacity, slowly transforms Eilis from a shy wallflower to a more confident young woman, at ease in her night classes and on the dance floor at her parish church. At the latter she meets Tony, an Italian American who, after an extended courtship, she falls in love with. But an unexpected death back in Ireland forces Eilis to part from Tony and return, ostensibly briefly, to her old life. This visit confronts Eilis with the changes that America has wrought in her through the new esteem in which she finds herself held. Having left dowdy, she has returned sophisticated and exotic, and attracts the attention of a successful local man. Hesitant in telling her family of her relationship with Tony, and tempted by the possibility of unexpected romance in Ireland, Eilis allows herself to be swept along into the arms of this new suitor. But Eilis cannot keep her two lives separate and choosing between them is inevitable.

This was a really enjoyable story that unexpectedly ticked lots of boxes for me. I went in expecting some dour tale of misery in Ireland being supplanted by a whole new class of misery in the New World, with some worthy commentary about the emigrant experience along the way. Ireland's reputation as the wellspring of biographies that wallow in miserable and unforgivingly hard lives certainly proceeds it.

But in Eilis the novel creates a believable focus of whom the reader is at first protective, then someone whose modest triumphs can be shared, but then latterly someone whose fickleness begins to undo the earlier good will. As such, she feels a very real, fully three-dimensional character, and her gradual transformations are teased out naturally by Tóibín without ever feeling forced. Although some of her later decisions are liable to invoke despair in the reader, it's easy to see why she is so tempted, even while it's equally easy to see her (uncharacteristically) in the wrong.

The novel fills out Eilis' world with credible detail and a number of memorable secondary characters. Though she is relatively underplayed, Rose cuts an interesting figure in the novel as the wise elder sister with motives that are opaque to Eilis. Mrs. Kehoe, Eilis' landlady, also plays a key role; at first, a stern matron figure to her young boarders, but privately supportive of the girls that she gets to know well. Nothing said directly, but the implication is that Mrs. Kehoe sees something of her own young self in Eilis.

One aspect of the novel which is a little credulity-stretching is Eilis' generally good fortunes; she more or less lands on her feet, and almost everyone she comes into contact with, certainly everyone who matters, is kind and helpful to her. She does seem a rather lucky woman to say the least. But it's not like she wins the lottery of anything like that, so this doesn't really detract from her story. Perhaps I've just read too many novels in which things-going-wrong drive the plot forwards?

Anyway, a most enjoyable read. Not likely to set the world on fire, and not the canonical emigrant novel (whatever that is!), but easily one of the most pleasing novels I've read of late. I've not read Tóibín before, but if he writes like this all the time, I'll definitely be dipping back into his work.

Saturday, 28 November 2009


Another day, another Inspector Rebus novel, Tooth and Nail ...

This time the novel is set, unusually, outside of both Edinburgh and Scotland. Rebus has been called to London to assist a stumbling investigation there into a potential serial killer, dubbed the "Wolfman" by the popular press. Ostensibly there because of his experience in an earlier case (one that's pre-novels I think), Rebus suspects that he's been brought in only temporarily, to take the heat off the local investigators and to potentially serve later as a scapegoat. However, much as hoped by his London opposite number Detective George Flight (and expected by loyal readers), Rebus' fresh eyes and Scottish experiences take the investigation in new directions. Assistance from an attractive, if strangely office-less, female psychologist gives Rebus both a new perspective on the killer, but also an Achilles' heel.

There's not really a lot to say about this novel beyond it being another quality Rebus read. Unlike the earlier novels, which are largely police procedural and peopled by criminals with ultimately straightforward motives, this is focused around a crime genre stereotype: the serial killer. It's an interesting diversion for Rankin, but one which is slightly haunted by the spectre of Hannibal Lecter. Especially so given the killer's interest in teeth, which is reminiscent of the quarry in Red Dragon, published several years before this novel. Rankin also appears to borrow the convention of giving the killer voice here. Hitherto, the novels have tracked Rebus' dogged pursuit, but here the object of the chase is given short chapters in which victims are all-too-briefly introduced.

But the parallels don't detract from this novel, and may even be Rankin satirising the genre, although it feels more like homage. The serial killer is finally revealed a little late in the novel, and while I was somewhat perplexed by the revelation of identity (I probably wasn't paying close enough attention), I still went along with it happily. But then, that's what happens when the well-written prose goes down so pleasingly easy.

Overall, another step up for Rankin. I'm looking forwards to the next one.

Friday, 27 November 2009


I went to another in the biannual series of Christians in Science lectures the other week. This time around we had an astrophysicist, Rev. Dr. David Wilkinson, who latterly became an ordained Methodist minister in Liverpool and then a theologian at Durham University. His lecture title, "God, Time and Eternity", wasn't one that he'd chosen, it having been "gifted" on him by the organisers, but it allowed him to draw on his experiences from both of his vocations.

The science part of the lecture largely dealt with big bang cosmology, with a bit of a focus on the period up to 10-43 s after it happens (= the part where our physical theories apparently break down). The speaker did a good job of introducing the history of and evidence for the big bang, and gradually wound around to the problems with the theory itself, and the complications caused by the appearance on the scene of dark matter and dark energy. This culminated in a quick overview of inflation theory, and a mention of the fudges that this involves.

Up to this point the speaker was entirely on-message. But the point where a speaker gets to gaps in the current scientific picture of a topic is often a sign of "bad things" to come. While this speaker was no exception, I have to say that he held it together much better than I was expecting, and much more credibly than any of the speakers to date.

By way of a quick summary of where he went "wrong":
  • The usual slippery description of god that skilfully bounces between an amorphous generic description and one which is specifically the New Testament god-Jesus fusion
  • A whiff of special pleading to shoehorn god into the explanation for the Great Mystery of Being (a mystery that agnostics et al. are happy to concede)
  • Dangerous skating around the anthropic morass of a fine-tuned universe
All that said, the speaker did have some very redeeming features. Although he may have been overplaying it for members of the audience who, like me, switch off in the face of a religious certainly in one particular god being the right one, he was quick to put the counter-arguments to his position as he went along. For instance, unlike other speakers in this series, his visit to fine-tuned fundamental constants took in the anthropic principle, and he even described the topic as "anthropic balances" to make draw attention to this rival explanation. He was also keen that believers should be very careful around gaps in current scientific knowledge and to avoid shoehorning god into these, and explicitly rejected the "tuned fundament parameters" argument as an argument from design (and for good reason, as I've remarked before).

More generally, he was very good at staying reasoned throughout his seminar, and occasionally even conceded points where his theology has no answers. For instance (and this was also picked up in post-seminar questions), he noted that our universe is pretty big and empty for something that was ostensibly created for us. Also, while clearly not enamoured of them, he accepted that multiverses (were they to exist) would cause his theology trouble by again decreasing the "specialness" of our world. Other speakers in these series have ranged from not covering such topics, to overplaying them and then dismissing such concerns out of hand. So this speaker was refreshing if nothing else.

Anyway, a much better performance from this seminar series this time. A very affable speaker, unafraid to concede ground, and willing to be upfront about gaps in his theology. Admittedly, as usual for these speakers, he came unstuck whenever he came close to the specifics of his particular faith, resorting then to bald affirmations or poetic metaphors. And he did have some strange antagonism with deism which was both confusing and unconvincing. But, overall, a step up for Christians in Science.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Outsourced biodiversity

Just read (or, more accurately, skim-read) an article in Nature about Gretchen Daily and ecosystem services. She's a big advocate for the latter, and the article reviews the topic and the dollar estimates placed upon the benefits we, usually unknowingly, accrue from the Earth. An early estimate for global services was $33 trillion per year, which is not far off its economic "equivalent", Gross World Product, estimated at $41 trillion.

One of the attractions of this presentation of ecology, aside from it accurately telling us something important about the infrastructure that supports our civilisation, is that it provides a backdoor route for protecting biodiversity. By (necessarily) summarising the beneficial effects, it encourages the preservation of intact ecosystems, regardless of whether the constituent organisms are cute and cuddly or over-limbed and venomous.

However, the article goes on to make a point that's inherent in the concept of ecosystem services, but which I'd not thought much about before. Basically, what happens if your ecosystem services can be outsourced to a less biodiverse alternative? The specific example given in the article is the replacement of a complex native habitat with a "monotonous plain of non-native grass [that] delivers better and cheaper ecosystem services, measured in water filtration, carbon sequestration and flood protection".

Put this way, the concept of ecosystem services could be applied to determine the "minimum specification" ecosystem that will provide the required outputs without trimmings such as newts and nematodes. Of course, diverse natural ecosystems generally deliver more than just a couple of core services, but they also (presumably) contain redundancies in the form of species that contribute no anthropic benefits. Faced with a small number of preferred system outputs and the choice between a simple managed system, and one which includes all of nature's glory, it's easy to see how biodiversity could take a backseat.

Admittedly, the argument could be made that we don't understand ecosystems well enough to ever be faced with such a bald choices, and there's something in this. We've got a pretty good idea how the major players in ecosystems operate, but the full breadth of interactions escapes us, and there are plenty of examples from ecology of where numerically "irrelevant" species play a key role. Furthermore, even ostensibly human environments such as cities become home to a range of unanticipated species (good, bad and ugly), and any engineered ecosystem is liable to be similarly infested and affected. So, for the foreseeable future, largely intact ecosystems are likely to be cherished (in that special "marginalised unless vital" sense).

But this does makes one realise that we need more than a utilitarian argument for retaining biodiversity. That might halt the barbarians at the gate for a while, but it's not enough that our fellow non-human residents of Earth "merely" close the loops of the planet's biogeochemical cycles, we need to think beyond this. Essentially, we need to factor in a moral dimension to biodiversity, and we need to be able to sell this plausibly when the ecosystem engineers come knocking.

Monday, 16 November 2009


This is a fairly pointless statistic, and a disappointing one when viewed in context, but I finally passed 10,000 photograph views over at Flickr!

Pointless, since I use Flickr to distribute photographs for friends and family rather than for self-validation [*]. Disappointing, since my friend Graham is already sitting an order of magnitude ahead of me, despite neither giving a hoot about the numbers, nor having as many uploaded images. Not, of course, that I'm in some higher-is-better competition ...

[*] In the main that is, although I'd be lying if I said that it wasn't nice to get positive comments from passing visitors.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Greatest promise?

We got a circular around work last week asking for individual scientists to contact Channel 4 news to respond to a particular climate change question. Anyway, here's what I (ignorantly) sent them ...

"Which idea, policy or technology do you think holds the greatest promise or could deliver the greatest benefit for addressing climate change?"

In the immediate future (~10 years), I believe that the greatest promise is offered by technologies related to carbon capture and storage (CCS). In principle, these will allow technological societies to retrofit existing infrastructure while continuing to use fossil fuel resources without exacerbating either climate change or ocean acidification. In an ideal world, these problems would be tackled by energy conservation and by expansion of renewable and nuclear fission energy provision, but these options are either limited in extent or are (irrationally) unpopular.

In the further future (~30 years), I believe that the greatest promise is offered by technologies related to nuclear fusion. There are a number of options being investigated on this front (of which the best-known is ITER under construction in France), but I expect that one or more will be successful and will allow us to meet longer-term energy requirements without the production of CO2. Assuming there are no further innovations in transportation technology, I would also expect nuclear fusion to provide a means for generating carbon-free hydrogen for use in land and (possibly) air travel.

Should climate change prove more rapid and deleterious than we currently believe it will be, I believe that some geoengineering technology may be helpful in temporarily offsetting climate change to allow us time to adjust our activities. Specifically, I believe that the deployment of stratospheric aerosol technology may allow us to decrease excessive global temperatures. However, since this particular technology does nothing to address the root cause of climate change, it categorically should not be viewed as anything other than a temporary "fix". Furthermore, as indicated by the recent Royal Society report, all geoengineering technologies have significant negative aspects (e.g. deleterious side-effects, prohibitive cost), and none should be viewed as preferable options.

My answers above have focused on purely technological angles to climate change, to which I would add a couple of policy / presentational points. Firstly, given that climate change measures are costly (at least in the short term), it should be recognised that there are strong financial incentives to avoid pursuing them, and policy relying on the better natures of individuals and governments is unhelpful. Mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon must be the route forwards. Secondly, and this is more a presentational point, it cannot be stressed enough that, on climate justice grounds, emissions targets should always be expressed in per capita terms and should acknowledge not just present-day emissions but those historical emissions of technological societies that have gotten them to their present state. All too often public discussion is needlessly clouded by focusing on emissions on a country-by-country basis, which ignores (all too conveniently it usually transpires) relative size. Further, technological societies are overwhelming responsible for our current situation, but this fact is often overlooked, creating great injustice when the emissions of less developed societies are scrutinised.

Finally, a point that is only rarely heard in current environmental discussions is that climate change is not the only ecological cliff-edge to which modern societies are heading. The growth of human societies (both in terms of numbers of individuals and resource consumption) is creating ever greater strain on the ecosystem services on which these same societies unknowingly rely. Coupled to this is the related loss of biodiversity, which has both practical and moral angles to it. Solving climate change, which seems a forlorn hope at the best of times, does very little for other such invisible hurdles.

Needless to say, as with other such requests for input, I've heard diddly-squat back. If I hear anything about this news item, I'll post it up.

Saturday, 7 November 2009


This ...


Has become this ...


I wonder what the difference will be?

To be honest, I was pretty happy with Vista. It got a bum rap in my view, but since it's clearly on the way out, I thought I'd get with the programme for once, and keep up with the new OS.

So far it seems to be fine. It installed with no problems and is running well (bar some teething problems with HL2DM). Not quite as resource un-hungry as I'd hoped, but there's maybe scope for tailoring that.

I'll have to just see how it works out. I can always go back ... I think.


A bit of a break with traditional reading patterns this time: a biography - indeed, an autobiography. For reasons I can't entirely pin down, I've never been interested in reading anything beyond fiction or popular treatments of science, etc. Although I've enjoyed the occasional biographical asides in the latter, and the veiled hint that the former are partially biography, I've not felt the need to read formal biography. Unsurprisingly then, I'm only coming to it now because of a birthday present from C. Knowing of my great love for the UK band Blur, she bought me the autobiography of its bassist, Alex James.

That said, I suspect it's not the most typical of introductions to the literary genre for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it's written (rather than ghostwritten) by someone with an atypical job relative to most public figures who come to my attention, namely one in popular music. Secondly, although the subject is an artist, the book contains practically nothing about his art. This came as something of a surprise, and I suspect some readers might feel a bit cheated to find the book's pages bereft of anything about their favourite music beyond vague, passing remarks.

This latter point certainly undercut my expectations for this book. I'd expected, probably hoped, to find out interesting points about particular songs and albums, but the book stays well away from this sort of dissection. To the extent that it's at times difficult to work out when the author is talking about since he doesn't even use his band's discography for temporal stratigraphy.

Instead, the book is a rambling overview of James' childhood and his life during the Blur years, that finishes up with him settling down with a wife (and, inexplicably, a pig farm). He skips the music to focus instead on the everyday, and increasingly less-everyday, aspects of his rock star life. Large quantities of drugs are consumed, wall-to-wall sexual adventures are passingly alluded to, but the book does find time to fill in some unexpected details.

These include a walk-on part for the artist Damien Hirst who, contrary to my expectations, comes off as a talented and entertaining friend to James. Also, James waxes lyrical about his infatuation with astronomy, which ultimately led to the (ultimately) unsuccessful Beagle 2 mission to Mars. And, along the way, James becomes a qualified pilot, and gets quite poetic about his flying around Europe and Africa.

So, though it has a near-total lack of any backstory or discussion of Blur's hits, the book does make for an interesting read. But it's safe to say that James is not the most natural or fluid of writers. His prose frequently reads like conversation, with a repetitive patter that works in speech but less in print. And he has something of a bad habit of being overenthusiastic about everything. The reader is breathlessly introduced to some arbitrary subject (flying, touring, cheese shops) that is then described as James' favourite and the best-ever. Although it would have distorted his style, I did often think that James' editor could have stepped in and earned their keep more (or perhaps they did!).

One uneasy aspect to the book is James' treatment of his long-term girlfriend, Justine. She never really features much in the book, despite playing an ostensibly significant part for a long stretch (although this could be said about most of James' friends and family). Furthermore, although constantly apologetic towards her in his writing, James really didn't treat her very well during his ride with Blur. As success kicks in, tours quickly become an opportunity for (multiple) infidelity, and though James appears regretful about this, he still strung her along for a considerable period of time. And while it's difficult to be sure given the book's rather fluid chronology, it reads like she left him because of his lack of commitment, only for him to commit to his current wife in pretty short order.

Anyway, overall it's an interesting peek into contemporary rock star life, one that does contain a few nice surprises, but I can't say that it's won me over to biography as a form. It's doubtless far from the best introduction, but I'm still not particularly convinced that I want to take such a specific interest in the detail of the lives of others. I'm going to stick to novels.