Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas creativity

I'm completely useless at making anything myself by hand. Fortunately, the magic of the internet means that, as long as I can turn something into a digital file, someone else can turn it into a physical item for me. So, this year I've tried to knock up a couple of presents for C this way.

First up, her favourite novel as a Penguin-style mug ...

Present 1

Next, ripping off the local artist Tina Bird Wallbridge to make a stylised map of our local neighbourhood ...

Present 2

Saturday, 19 December 2009

3D or not 3D? That is the question

With yesterday's snow making us chicken out of a run up to London, we bummed around Southampton for the day before heading out to see James Cameron's much-hyped Avatar. With the exception of [shudder] Titanic, I've always found Cameron's work a lot of fun, and his Aliens is still one of my favourite films. But the (over)selling of Avatar began early, so I was skeptical that Cameron would successfully tackle aliens on a remote planet[*] for a second time.

The plot can be summarised in a single sentence: a crippled marine, Jake, goes to a distant world where his mind is projected into a fully-functional alien body, the avatar, ostensibly so that he can infiltrate the aliens and persuade them to let evil corporates rape the planet, but he goes all fifth-column on his masters when he belatedly discovers how evil they are, and ultimately leads the aliens (read "Native Americans") to a military victory over said evil-doers. OK, that would probably read better as two sentences, but it's not exactly Tolstoy. Serviceable science fiction nonsense (which, obviously, I love), but not exactly best-original-screenplay-Oscar material.

Aside from its pretty flawless integration of computer animation into live action, the other big selling point is the film's use of 3D. This is the bit I was probably more skeptical about going into the film. My first experience of this was watching, or rather trying to watch, Creature from the Black Lagoon in crappy anaglyph-o-vision[**] way back in youth club when I must have been 10 years old. I then managed to dodge 3D for more than two decades, and figured it was dead, until I caught one about the ISS on IMAX in Florida. That was kind-of OK, but IMAX is still a sufficiently novel experience for me that it was difficult to separate the 3D from that. All of which makes Avatar my first experience of mainstream cinema 3D.

Coming out of the film, I'm still not convinced that 3D is the way forwards. Leaving aside the massively inflated ticket price (it cost us slightly less than double a seat at our local arthouse cinema), 3D just doesn't bring enough to the table to my mind. Firstly, it obviously does absolutely nothing for normal cinematic conventions like plot or character. A film will still stand or fall based on it making coherent internal sense and being filled with engaging characters, not on whether some of said characters appear slightly closer to the viewer than others.

Secondly, for all of Avatar's technical prowess, there were still moments where its 3D became briefly incoherent and times when I had to consciously make it 3D by re-focusing my eyes. For instance, early in the film there's a fast chase through a beautiful jungle that has the viewer racing along with Jake's avatar. Unfortunately, there's so much 3D information passing so quickly that my eyes gave up the ghost and the whole sequence was lost on me as a 3D spectacle. Other times, particularly in enclosed scenes, I found myself looking around the frame to objects much closer than the subjects that Cameron wanted me looking at, objects that were either difficult to bring into focus in the first place or which made it difficult to change focus when the action moved on.

Anyway, overall the 3D is pretty impressive, but I remain unconvinced that it's the way forwards for cinema. I think it's not a bad trick for spectacles like Avatar, but I'm not sure it'll add anything to conventional, character-based films. And there's still the economic aspect to whether studios will support it, namely: since DVD is now a major way by which films recoup their costs and make profits, and since TV is a long way from 3D and is inherently an unlikely platform (would you like to watch little 3D figures battle it out in a corner of your living room?), studios can't make a buck from the extra costs 3D films take to make. So I still remain to be persuaded on 3D.

Changing tack, is conventional, 2D Avatar up to much? Generally yes, but I don't think that it's up to Cameron's usual standards. I was kind-of suckered by the biological detail of the world, Pandora, that he's created, but I suspect that most people don't appreciate, or even spot, the homologies in the Pandoran fauna. I also suspect that many of Cameron's usual fans might be a little put-out by his flagrant tree-hugging as well. Again, this is something that I don't mind ... too much, but I would imagine that many more gung-ho fans might find themselves sympathising with the evil corporation's more laissez-faire attitude to Pandora's natural wealth. Furthermore, the underlying theme of biological unity sits interestingly with the heavily weaponised spaceships and exoskeletons.

There were one of two items I did particularly like or engage with. Firstly, that Cameron carries the idea of avatars further than simply the body that Jake "occupies". Both the corporate mercenaries (and their exoskeletons) and the native Na'vi warriors (and their mounts) extend themselves into the platforms they ride on, so there's a kind-of meta-avatar thing going on. I also quite liked the (ultimately new-agey) biological oneness that ties Pandora together. I was hoping that it might have a more sciencey explanation by the end (as hinted by Sigourney Weaver's scientist character), but Cameron left it as some mystical mumbo-jumbo that one had to gloss over. And, of course, I'm always suckered by films that use the evil-corporation-vs.-oppressed-underdogs dynamic. Although they were giant, blue-skinned and digitally-rendered space aliens, I totally got behind them.

I did wonder how Cameron will follow this one up though. We'll see.

[*] Actually, it's a moon of a gas giant that looks suspiciously like Jupiter. Admittedly, aside from zonal banding, the gas giants we're familiar with can look a little boring, but did Cameron really have to cut-and-paste Jupiter's Great Red Spot onto his fictional companion of Alpha Centauri? I'd have thought he could have been a bit more imaginative than that - perhaps two giant spots that merge during the film in some sort of meta-thing? He totally should have come to speak to me.

[**] Much to my surprise, I've just this minute discovered that the film was originally shot with the kind of polarised light 3D that is more popular nowadays, and which Avatar uses. I always figured that red-and-green were the official colours of the flag of ancient 3D films.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Disgruntled from Southampton

As solid and enjoyable as the Today programme is, it frequently drops the ball on science. Today's failings were annoying enough for me to complain to them for the first time. Grrrr ...
One of the aspects of science presentation in the media that I find most annoying is the inconsistency in the reporting.

A short while ago, I heard Justin Webb questioning David King on the veracity of climate science, and again muddying the waters of a settled area of science ("settled", obviously, in the scientific community).

But earlier in the programme I heard the Today panel cooing over some clearly erroneous "science" about dancing in humans. Thankfully, I'm no expert in "dance science", but even an oceanographer can spot a number of serious flaws in the reported work, flaws that the Today team were either oblivious to, or quite happy to ignore for the sake of a story.

For starters, the data originate from a self-selected sample so are not representative, and are (I believe) UK specific so may not translate between cultures. Which, needless to say, didn't stop the interviewee from extrapolating wildly to the whole of humanity. This dubious data was then used in an evolutionary flight-of-fantasy in which the interviewee first confidently tacked on some faintly plausible relationship with fertility, but then went off at the deep end by positing an explanation for older male dancing that drew on discredited group selection theory.

To wit, any older male "stepping aside" for younger males would be at a strong evolutionary disadvantage since they would likely leave less descendants than less accommodating rival males. To be fair, it's conceivable that some variant of kin selection could play a role here, but the Today interviewee blithely played the super-confident expert while peddling his science-lite story.

Such a double standard in reporting is infuriating to scientists. Work that's firmly grounded in vast quantities of data and deep theoretical understanding is pilloried, while work that, to put it charitably, needs more data and better hypothesis-testing gets as much airtime and polite approval from the Today team.

I understand the realities of reporting that place science as just one other story, but Today does its listening public a disservice by failing to properly contextualise the science that it does report. We expect Today to focus on important stories when it comes to the political and economic arenas, why can't it do the same for science?

Saturday, 12 December 2009

My carbon jackboot

I took another of these "carbon footprint" quizes. I didn't come out so badly (see here), but I suspect I've lied a bit about assorted aspects of my Earth-screwing lifestyle. Apparently, if everyone lived like me, we'd only need a little over one extra Earth-like planet to get by on. Seems a tad unlikely.

Not, of course, that I entirely trust the calculations underlying these rather rarefied quizes. Ecology has only gotten into assessing and enumerating ecosystem services in a big way in the past decade or so, so I'm a little skeptical that the assorted factors that go towards this number-of-Earths estimate are well-constrained.

Still, it's faintly informative, and probably captures something about our lifestyles. That said, my ecologically-minded friend AMG managed to rack up 5 Earths! I seriously doubt that I'm 3 Earths more virtuous.

Carbon footprint

Friday, 11 December 2009

A god walks among us

We just had a rather entertaining seminar from Paul Falkowski [*]. Extremely wide-ranging, from molecular biology to global biogeochemical cycles to human evolution to the anthropocene. And pretty entertaining too. He knows how to have an audience eating out of his hand.

Anyway, among other interesting points that he mentioned...
  • Most biological diversity in the world is in function not form, since most organisms are single celled and bacterial.
  • From examining the distribution of processes between evolutionarily disparate lineages, it's clear that "quantum evolution", via horizontal gene transfer, is an important process.
  • The main elements involved in life on Earth are (the usual suspects ...) H, C, N, O, P and S; of which all bar P are linked together through electron exchange processes.
  • The whole world is run off the back of about 1500 genes, all else is just embellishment.
  • The evolution of language and complex memory in humans has allowed the dissemination and collation of vast amounts of information, which in turn has given us the ability to vastly alter and control our environment.
  • Some point I now can't clearly remember about how the accelerating accumulation of wealth in technological societies that somehow means that they're predisposed to plundering the Earth's resources (i.e. co-opting more and more of the planet's infrastructure).
Anyway, all good stuff, and presented with an impressive zeal. What I liked most was the scale covered, from cellular machinery through biogeochemical cycles to the grand sweep of Earth's history and our (probably deleterious) role in its future. I was a little bit less impressed by the occasional name-dropping (though he's earned it), but overall a great seminar. But having seen him in action in Florida last year, I wasn't surprised.

Knowing of my editorial predilections, my officemate asked if there was an article on Falkowski on Wikipedia. I checked and there wasn't. One lunch hour's activity later, and now there is. He totally merits it, but I've probably grossly oversimplified his interests.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

A good idea?

Yesterday saw the publication of a "statement from the UK science community" orchestrated by the Met Office in support of the scientific consensus on climate change.
We, members of the UK science community, have the utmost confidence in the observational evidence for global warming and the scientific basis for concluding that it is due primarily to human activities. The evidence and the science are deep and extensive. They come from decades of painstaking and meticulous research, by many thousands of scientists across the world who adhere to the highest levels of professional integrity. That research has been subject to peer review and publication, providing traceability of the evidence and support for the scientific method. The science of climate change draws on fundamental research from an increasing number of disciplines, many of which are represented here. As professional scientists, from students to senior professors, we uphold the findings of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, which concludes that "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal" and that "Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations".
Although I am one of the almost 2000 signatories, I did think twice about signing up, and communicated this in my response to the initial request for support. Not, I should add, because I in any way disagree with or have qualms about the statement, but because it's not clear to me what the best course of action is when dealing with the toxic morass created by so-called climate skeptics [*].

This, of course, has reached something of a head with the carefully timed, and carefully selective, publication of e-mails and computer files (most likely) stolen from the Climate Research Unit at UEA. While they contain little that surprises me, and at worst paint certain scientists as rude and unhelpful towards other scientists, the publication of this material seems to have greatly elevated the shrillness of so-called skeptics to new highs (or lows, depending on one's perspective).

Even some scientists have been hand-wringing about portions of the content published to the internet. Seeing how the so-called climate skeptics have operated over the years, and having noted the parallels between their strategies and those of similarly misguided creationists, anti-environmentalists and tobacco interests, I can't say that I'm particularly offended or dismayed by the material that I've seen. It seems a fairly inevitable response to the crass stupidity, goalpost-shifting, disingenuity and outright lying that largely passes for so-called skepticism in such circles.

This is probably because I've exasperated myself dealing with such people in Usenet and at Wikipedia over the years. I've realised from repeated encounters that while a minority of (almost always) hostile opponents can be swayed by a straightforward laying out of "the facts", the majority of such "discussions" don't go anywhere useful. Sometimes one is faced with a continually moving target, where responses to one false statement merely result in its replacement with another. Other times, an opponent will just disappear from a discussion, often to reappear later or elsewhere making similar or even identical false statements. While it's often a pleasure to deal with the eager-to-learn minority, these latter types now quickly fray patience after years of dealing with them.

Anyway, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the foregoing, I decided to sign up to a statement which I knew would just get thrown back at us as further evidence of some vast left-wing conspiracy to enslave the "freedom-loving" moral majority (or something ...). But in the end, I still think, or perhaps hope, that the long game is the one we should play. Keep confronting the so-called climate skeptics whenever they pop up, and hopefully slowly contain their particular, and peculiar, brand of "individualism". We'll see.

[*] I preface "climate skeptic" with "so-called" deliberately since they don't merit the term "skeptic". With some notable exceptions, whose views are a lot more mushy under questioning, the baying mob are denialists plain and simple. Nothing will change their view, and when climate change becomes undeniable, they'll find some way of worming out of the mess that they've partially helped create. It would be nice to think that there'd be a satisfying "I-told-you-so" somewhere down the line, but I expect material circumstances to change sufficiently that a future comeuppance will offer no pleasure.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Journey back

[Taking advantage of my new laptop, this post was written on the move]

Well, the meeting was something of a mixed experience. My first surprise was the attendance – I’d gone expecting a handful of people, but the medium-sized conference room was pretty healthily stocked by the time I arrived. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these turned out to be Met Office staff who just dipped in and out of the meeting randomly, but it was initially something of a shock. The presentations before mine were mixed layer focused (as they were meant to be), and a mixture of review and “normal” work. Needless to say, I immediately panicked that my generic “thoughts on biophysical interactions” presentation wouldn’t fit in. Probably correctly, although my presentation came off well enough to solicit questions from the audience. But given how different my presentation was to those before it, I suspect there was an element of them just being polite. Still, I shouldn’t be too hard on myself – there were a pair of total stinkers in the afternoon.

What did I learn? Well, mostly that model physics, which I always take as being well-understood and a fixed star in my life, has all sorts of problems and issues associated with it. One of the big names in attendance, the appropriately-named Bill Large, even got all sociological on the failings of the community to consistently apply model schemes and to adopt the best ones. Coming from the not-dissimilarly burdened marine ecosystem community, it was a relief in a way to know that our problems, although more serious in different ways, have analogues in other fields. I also learned that my frequent complaint, that I can’t get a straight answer as to whether my modelled mixed layers are any good, also runs in this community. I mean, if they don’t know …

I had a long chat with RW about the future of marine ecosystem models. Because the Met Office is in the business of running large numbers standardised experiments (weather forecasts for instance), he’s keen that something sensible is done to thin the plethora of existing models down to a more manageable field. He seemed very interested in the Follows work, and asked what my take on it was. I think that it’s great “blue skies” stuff, and I love the motivation behind it, but I suspect it’s not going to be a big part of the (near) future. Not least because it’d be a huge pain to run so many tracers (most of which go effectively extinct), but also because the parameter trade-offs that underlie it still needs a lot of work on them. Of course, I said all this while managing to conveniently forget my own failed fellowship bid that aimed to do something not a million miles removed. Anyway, it sounds like there’s pressure building to settle on some representation of the ocean’s ecology. And probably not good old HadOCC.

I was also questioned over coffee by a student (from Reading I think) who’s trying to model the Arabian Sea (in 1D) with a view to examining the bio-optical feedbacks there. From what he said, it sounds like he’s coming unstuck on a number of fronts. First, he’s trimmed the ecosystem model to remove chlorophyll as a dynamic state variable. Probably not the best idea for a project in which light absorption is a key aspect. He’s also having trouble getting his phytoplankton to bloom, they prefer to hover around at low values. He thinks this may stem from issues related to upwelling fluxes of nutrients, but this isn’t going to be fun to simulate in 1D. Anyway, I’m not sure if my advice helped or hurt, but I gave him my details and I’ll see if he calls back.

Anyway, though much of the meeting was a bit over my head, there were a few interesting results presented, and the “sociological” stuff was worth attending for. It was also nice to finally visit Met Office Exeter. Having visited their cramped former residence in Bracknell many times, I was curious to know what they’d do with a bit more space. And I wasn’t disappointed. I don’t know what it’s like to work in, but it’s quite a departure from traditional institutional designs, in particular through its centring around an impressive central space, the “Street”. This houses shops, a gym and even a spa, and has plenty of viewing points including a number of walkways spanning it. A definite step-up from the old Hadley Centre digs. My abiding memories of that building were the corridors that were barely wide enough for two people, the veal crate offices, and the fact that the plaque noting the building’s opening by Margaret Thatcher was matter-of-factly hidden in a pokey coffee room.

Returning to earlier random thoughts, train journeys in darkness don't inspire anything like the same mental meandering in me. Perhaps it's because the external world is black with occasional lights, and that this focuses my attention into the carriage interior and my fellow train inhabitants. Night-time return journeys like this one mostly find me speculating about the lives of other passengers. This is entirely rank speculation based on gross extrapolation from trivial details: what they're doing; what they're reading; what they're talking about too loud on their mobile phones. Anyway, it all sort of points to my morning randomness being as much to do with having something outside to look at as anything else.

Right, changing train soon. Better get ready.

Journey out

[Taking advantage of my new laptop, this post was written on the move]

Off to the Met Office in Exeter today to deliver a short presentation on biophysical considerations pertinent to the “next generation” of climate / weather models. Not exactly my specialist topic (despite my job title), but I’m stepping in for EKP as she’s off moving house. As it happens, I’m sure that I owe her anyway – she seems to have been to a lot more meetings this year than I have. Anyway, I’ve slides about light, mixed layer depth and some about the future shift of modelling away from ocean-only to fully-coupled modes. I imagine that in a couple of years the idea that using ocean-only models is OK will be looked on in amazement. But, then, in a couple of years, the climate will be far more obviously changing and therefore needing fully-coupled models. So long as the climate was largely similar to its “stable”, interglacial state, ocean-only modelling was perfectly fine. Anyhow, it’ll be interesting to hear what everyone else at the meeting is suggesting for their parts of our models in the future. Assuming I get to Exeter at some point – this train seems to have experienced a series of setbacks on its journey so far …

I don’t know if it only happens to me, but I find that travelling invokes a strange, reflective state in me. Maybe it’s seeing a swathe of the world pass by the window. Maybe it’s the iPod-driven musical accompaniment that I use to pass the time. Maybe it’s just being solo and having nothing better to do. Either way, I invariably go off on strange trains (appropriately enough today) of thought. Sometimes I think about the wild things I see outside and wonder what they make of what we’ve done to the world around them. Do they just completely accept it unthinkingly, or do they have some primordial inkling at the back of their minds that this isn’t the way things are meant to be? Or has evolution already marched them on such that the world we’ve shaped to our ends meshes with their internal model of it? Do deer now see fields as completely natural, or do the curves of rivers and forest edges still seem, inexplicably, more “natural”?

Anyway, that’s the kind of nonsense I think about when travelling. I also think that I should listen to my music more often. Being a slave to Radio 4 these days, I often forget how much I used to like spending hours and hours listening to my CDs and, latterly, MP3s. Actually, come to think of it, listening to music also seems to put me into a more reflective mode. Perhaps it’s the mild disconnection that both travel and personal stereos introduce with my immediate environment?

[In passing, we’ve just gone past some derelict factory by the side of the railway. It gave me flashbacks to my (many) hours in City 17. Hardly a ringing endorsement for easy, rural living in the southwest. Actually, the scenery has now changed to a rather swollen waterway off to the side of the rail track.]

I also often go on “deep time” digressions, wondering what the landscape I’m flashing past looked like before we got our hands on it, thousands of years ago. And then what it’ll look like in thousands of years time when we’re gone. That line of thought usually diverges onto whether our extinction will be accompanied by that of everything around us, or whether they’ll get to wordlessly spectate as we, and our “exosomatic manifestations”, disappear from the world. And then what they’ll make of the ruins they find themselves among. Of course, closing a previous random thread, perhaps they’ll have evolved to the point where our world is natural and the fragmented wilderness that follows it is alien.

Anyway, I should be getting into Exeter soon, so I’ll stop for now. I wonder what the meeting will be like?