Saturday, 27 February 2010

"M." or "not M."

Hurrah - a new Iain Banks novel! But which side of the fiction / science fiction divide does Transition fall into? As it happens, the answer to this question partly depends on one's geographical position. If you happen to be in the UK, then it's regular Iain Banks; but if you're reading in the US, then it's otherworldly Iain M. Banks.

Taking the more direct approach to answering the question, that is reading the book, it's immediately clear that we're not in Kansas anymore, and that the author's middle initial has muscled its way into his fiction oeuvre (at least in the UK). What's going on?

Transition is set firmly, if that is possible, in a Many Worlds universe, largely on versions of the Earth that parallel our own but which are clearly different. For instance, in a provocative inversion of our world, Banks posits one reality (well, technically a branch of them) in which civilisation is threatened by suicide terrorists drawn from the ranks of Christians rather than Muslims. The connection between all of these worlds are "transitionaries", people who can flit their minds from universe to universe, and the novel centres around an organisation, the Concern (or L'Expédience, depending on the universe), that uses such people as agents "for the greater good".

Mirroring the split universe theme, the narrative is also divided between six principal characters. The story largely revolves around Temudjin Oh, a skilled Concern agent who uses transitioning in his work as an assassin. His professional abilities, and his budding moral misgivings about his work, respectively bring him to the attentions of Madame d'Ortolan and Mrs. Mulverhill. The former is a senior and controlling member of the Concern, while the latter is a renegade agent determined to expose d'Ortolan and to uncover what the Concern is really up to. The tales of these characters are joined by those of the Philosopher, a Concern torturer, Patient 8262, a transitioning agent lying low in a mental asylum, and Adrian Cubbish, a greedy former drug dealer now working as a greedy city trader in the London of our universe.

As the novel progresses these initially disparate, and occasionally confusing, strands are gradually kneaded together to flesh out a more literary take on multiverses. The novel also ups a few gears into thriller territory as Mulverhill prises Oh from the clutches of d'Ortolan, initiating a chain of murderous events that culminates in events in a familiar flooded city with a familiar city trader. Meanwhile, the philosopher-torturer finesses his sophistry to justify his role and actions, and Patient 8262 tries to make sense of his situation while avoiding the attentions of a molester on his ward.

It's extremely interesting to read this novel in short succession after Greg Egan's treatments (novel and short stories) of quantum mechanics. While Egan favours ideas and carefully thought-through physics in his works, Banks is clearly aiming at an imaginative and more emotionally-resonant treatment. Egan's books consequently come across as cold, while Banks' Transition is considerably more engaging from the get-go.

But, that said, Egan's treatments of the mechanics of multiverses are much more internally consistent than Banks' here. At one point, Banks explicitly mentions the quantum mechanical basis of his multiverse, but for the rest of the novel this isn't really carried forwards. For instance, Banks' protagonists flit from world to world, often to avoid imminent death, but the idea of Many Worlds is that all possibilities are realised, so while an agent may subjectively experience escape, an identical agent on a sister worldline should instead die. Instead, the agents seem like singular minds that roam among infinitely diverging universes. This lapse could be tidied up with some fast footwork emphasising the separateness (or something) of consciousness, but Banks never visits this.

On a tangential note, even if we allow Banks' agents to slip between worlds without considering Many Worlds, he doesn't seem interested at all in the deaths of innocents that they cause. Time and time again, his agents "jump into" some unwitting innocent life, comprehensively mess things up for their host, and then "jump out" leaving them to pick up the pieces. Frequently the pieces of themselves. By contrast, Egan's protagonist in Quarantine is greatly troubled by the versions of himself that are eliminated (quantum mechanically; but not Many Worlds) in pursuit of his quest.

Changing tack, and viewing more conventional aspects of the novel such as character and theme, what's going on there? Well, as one might expect for a thriller set in a byzantine multiverse, characterisation tends to take something of a back-seat. But even saying that, Banks is always more convincing here than almost all other science fiction authors, and here is no exception. The more interesting characters are actually the peripheral ones, since agent Oh et al. come across a little too James Bond-esque. Patient 8262's confusion and helplessness is well-played, making his plight engaging. Meanwhile, the Philosopher's account of his personal history, and his use of it to justify his actions, give his portions a more discernible, if twisted, moral edge. One odd decision Banks makes, presumably to initially add a bit of mystery, is his use of Adrian. Not only is he kept entirely separate until the end (both thematically and plot-wise), but his thread is wrapped up quite brutally. He is an unpleasant character, but it feels like Banks is making a point, albeit an ambiguous one, with him.

Working out the novel's theme is also a little difficult. Most obviously, largely through the activity of the Philosopher, it's a swipe at the War On [T]error, and the actions of our agencies in securing "intelligence". More generally, in its presentation of the Concern, it could perhaps be read as a critique of the-end-justifies-the-means politics. That said, Banks' most famous invention, the Culture, has a similar philosophy, but is portrayed as a largely benevolent organisation that makes pragmatic decisions for the-greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number (and feels sorry about the mistakes it makes). Even calling his malevolent organisation the Concern seems designed to make one draw parallels. Is Banks perhaps having second thoughts about his utopia? Or is he writing the Culture's mirror opposite? Difficult to say.

Anyway, regardless of these dissections, Transition is still pretty good fun to read. Not up with the best of his science fiction, but its adoption of a more complex model of reality makes it an interesting change of direction for his writing. I don't expect him to revisit the Concern, but I wouldn't entirely rule it out. There's still quite a bit of life in his alternative worlds.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Many worlds and many minds

After my last few reads of him, I keep saying that I'm going to give Greg Egan a bit of a rest because reading his mind-bending novels is clearly above my pay grade. They're really good, but they're hard, hard reads (in the science fiction sense; we're not in the misery genre here). However, since it's recently been Birthday-Christmas season, I've received quite a pile of new titles, two of which were written by Mr. Egan. So, in order to free up some book shelf space, I'm duty bound to tackle him again. That said, it's a little easier this time since Axiomatic is a collection of Egan's short stories.

The collection is Egan's first, and consists of stories published between 1989 and 1992. Pre-blog, I read his later collection, Luminous (which was also a present from C), and it definitely confirmed him as a must-read for me. The stories here range extremely widely in their subject and intent, although plasticity of mind, body and reality is a recurring theme.

Much as with his novel Quarantine, he visits quantum mechanics in the great opening story, The Infinite Assassin, inventing a special assassin who travels between universes to kill those with similar powers but who are intent to reshaping reality to suit themselves. The Hundred-Light-Year Diary imagines a future where everyone's daily lives are mapped out by diary entries ostensibly from the future. In The Caress, a detective who discovers a human-cheetah chimera is kidnapped to pose in a megalomaniac's reconstruction of Fernand Khnoff's most famous work. The widower protagonist of the eponymous Axiomatic takes an implant to "rewrite" his objections to capital punishment so that he can understand, and avenge, the murder of his wife. Meanwhile, the mind of the narrator in The Safe-Deposit Box flits nightly between different bodies, and uses the titular box to store the scraps of information he collects while unravelling his mysterious condition. Switching to electronic minds, Learning To Be Me concerns jewels, the artificial replacements for human brains that develop alongside them, and the conundrum of where consciousness really lies. The Moral Virologist is a fundamentalist with a training in molecular biology who creates a plague to target the "immoral", but his accuracy is blunted by biology's loopholes. In Closer a couple desire to know each other so completely that they trade bodies and even merge minds, but is perfect harmonisation really what lovers need?

As the selection above suggests, the collection is full of exotic treatments of biology, consciousness and reality. Several of the stories are simply jaw-droppingly imaginative and clever in the development and expansion of their central ideas, and Egan is almost uniformly excellent at wringing the most out of the worlds that he briefly creates. There are a couple of less successful stories, but even these contain the germ of a good idea.

More generally, I find that short stories suit Egan better than full-length novels. While their truncated page-count means that they lack the worked-out detail that his novels contain, this works in Egan's favour since he's forced to rein in his tendency to digress into full-throated dissections of physics. Also, since characterisation generally isn't a strong point of his novels, the necessary abbreviation of the occupants of his short stories obscures this weakness.

Overall, an excellent collection of stories. Not quite as good as the later Luminous I'd have said, but perhaps not surprising given that this contains his first forays into science fiction writing. And undoubtedly a more gentle introduction to Egan's obsession with the nature of reality and consciousness than his more gung-ho novels. A definite incentive to track down more of his short fiction.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Two Oscar Nominees

This weekend we caught two nominees for 2010 Oscars, The Hurt Locker, up for Best Motion Picture, and The Most Dangerous Man in America, nominated in the Best Documentary category.

Seeing the former film means that we've now seen 7 out of the 10 Best Picture nominees (the total number has been raised from the usual 5 just this year). This stacks on top of Up In The Air, An Education, Avatar, A Serious Man, District 9 and Inglourious Basterds. So, assuming that it's not one of the films that we've not seen, who should win?

Well, the favourites appear to be Avatar and The Hurt Locker, but I don't think either really deserve it. Avatar is jolly enough, but it basically boils down to little more than spectacle. THL is clearly the more serious film, and while I thought that it had some great scenes, I just didn't think it hung together terribly well as a film. The narrative jumps around semi-randomly between the major scenes, and while the overarching thread (that war can be an addiction) comes across [*], the script could definitely have been tightened. It's too much like a series of isolated events that only spasmodically illuminate or advance character. Really, films need to summarise and be more lucid in their themes. So says the armchair critic.

Taking in all of the runners that we've seen, my favourites for the top spot are Up In The Air and District 9 (though the latter would require that the jury be in a pretty sci-fi tolerant mood). Overall, I'd say that while the field isn't a particularly strong one this year, it doesn't have any egregious duffers in it. There's certainly nothing as soul-destroying as Braveheart, Titanic or (the horror) Gladiator in there.

[*] Not least because the film begins with a quote to this effect. Duh, talk about unnecessary foreshadowing.

By way of contrast, I can be a lot more positive about The Most Dangerous Man in America. This documentary is a watchable and very informative introduction to the so-called Pentagon Papers, and the tale of their leak to the US press by the military analyst Daniel Ellsberg. And what a tale it is!

Ellsberg began as a hawkish analyst, actually a former marine, who changed his mind on the war in Vietnam, in part based on his hands-on experience on the ground. But he came to realise that no matter what he said to his superiors or what wrote in secret reports for them, successive administrations remained committed to an escalating but futile conflict. So over the course of a number of weeks he gradually photocopied his way through a highly critical report, the Pentagon Papers, that had been commissioned by Robert McNamara (himself the subject of the excellent documentary The Fog of War) to examine the full history of US-Vietnam relations. The report, in which Ellsberg was a contributor, candidly exposed the compounded mistakes made by every US administration after the Second World War, but was neither acted upon nor released to the public.

Ellsberg initially leaked it to several US senators hostile to the Vietnam War, but when they sat on it he then leaked it to the US press. In fairly short order he was identified as the leaker and, together with a RAND corporation colleague, was ultimately tried in court. However, the tactics adopted by the Nixon administration in pursuing this prosecution, which dovetailed with those employed in the Watergate scandal, ultimately led to it being thrown out of court. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The documentary tells all of this and much more about the political events, but along the way it also brings in a lot of very interesting detail from Ellsberg's own life. We hear about his on-off-on-again romance with his anti-Vietnam girlfriend (now wife), the assistance of his children with the leak and the family tragedy that blighted his early life. This probably all sounds stodgy and worthy here, but it works great in the film.

However, will the film win? As this is the only one of the documentaries that we've seen, it's impossible to judge. And with a less-warmongering President in office, it's not got a head of political steam behind it. But if it does, it'll be well-earned. Roll on Sunday March 7, 2010 ...

In passing, a particular thought that occurred to me while watching the detail of the Pentagon Papers unspooling, was that while the Iraq War was instigated for all the wrong reasons and with all manner of unfortunate consequences, the circumstances surrounding the conflict in Vietnam show it to have been a much more significant débâcle. It embroiled a series of administrations, none of whom seemed to learned anything from it, and all of whom strove to keep the public ill-informed or misinformed about it. And with a much, much higher body count.

Another, partly positive thought was that although the various US administrations presented hawkish façades in relation to Vietnam, sane and critical opinions were still expressed behind the scenes. Admittedly, they weren't heard anywhere near early enough, but they existed and ultimately played a role in bringing the war to an end. That said, they kept publicly quiet for years, and it took one (brave) person to break ranks and reveal what they were saying behind their masters' backs. Would I have leaked?

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Front Page Pipes

Courtesy of hard work on the part of my old boss, another paper on ocean pipes has now been published, and its made our institute's front page. My contribution this time extended largely to comments and some discussion, rather than simulation and number-crunching.

I've alluded to this paper before, largely because its results are much more interesting than those that I found. In part, this stems from the use of a more detailed physical model that includes a simplified atmosphere which allows feedbacks that my ocean-only simulation just had to gloss over. The model (UVic for those who care) is also lower resolution than OCCAM, so longer simulations were possible.

Anyway, what happened? In the ocean, the pipes were still largely inefficient at sequestering carbon, although here they were allowed to cleverly alter their lengths here to maximise their use of so-called preformed nutrients (i.e. those that come with no associated carbon). Interestingly, the pipes did slightly counter the slowdown of the THC caused by global warming in the simulation (although in doing so they also brought up more CO2-rich seawater).

However, the real action was on the land. Here, cooler temperatures, driven by the cooling effect of the ocean pipes, led to a drop in the respiration of the land biota (TRIFFID for those who care). In fact, the changes on land were responsible for about 80% of the total sequestration of carbon in the simulation. Not what the proposers of ocean pipes had in mind, and not something that'd be easily verified in the real world to gain carbon credits.

Another interesting result was that switching off the ocean pipes leads to a (slightly) warmer Earth than would happen in the no-pipes control Earth. So, if the pipes are running but start to have some unforeseen negative effect, turning them off comes with an additional climate change penalty. Essentially, you'd have been better off not using them at all. Again, not what the proposers of ocean pipes had in mind.

While there are still some questions that the ocean pipes throw up, this seems another knock to them. Still, the geoengineers are rarely put off by such hurdles ...

P.S. The press release associated with this paper has been cut-and-pasted into (at least) three external blogs (here, here and here). This seems a pretty armchair approach to adding content to your web presence. Perhaps Strange News could bump up its posting-rate this way ...

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Salisbury Sojourn

We took a trip out to neighbouring Salisbury today. It's been a long time since I last visited, an embarrassing 12 years to be exact, so it was long overdue a return trip.

DSC04243 The main attraction was, unsurprisingly, the Cathedral, an 11th century marvel that's holding up pretty well. Because of its stature, it pretty much dominates the town, so provides a very helpful navigation marker.

As well as hosting the usual range of stained glass photo-opportunities and the obligatory cavernous vertical spaces, it also had a really neat baptismal font up front. Viewed from afar, this appeared to have four shiny metal legs, but up close these were revealed as spouts of (presumably holy) water from the corners of an X-shaped (oddly not cruciform) font. I tried to snap off some pictures of this, and its impressive mirror-like surface, but none turned out well.

Aside from its religious fixtures and fittings, the Cathedral also houses one of only four remaining copies of the Magna Carta. While it was great to finally see this (reading it not being an option given its language and scripting), I'm still somewhat unmoved by its ostensible significance. Yes, I can see how our current freedoms, etc., somehow stem from it, but my mind always drifts back to it really being about the freedoms of the ruling classes of the 13th century. I'm pretty sure that the document's drafting committee would be absolutely horrified at what's become of their sceptred isle since then, what with all of these commoners, serfs and (the horror) women being afforded the freedoms that they thought they'd safely confined to themselves. Still, I suppose I should be grateful.

DSC04292 Bar a trawl around the city's streets and a visit to another religious edifice (the Parish Church of St. Thomas and St. Edmund), not a whole heap more to report from Salisbury. We did find an interesting sundial that dated from the Reformation of the Calendar in 1752. Somewhat to my surprise (having surveyed a number over the years), it was actually almost correct as well. We saw it at 2:28pm, and its face claimed about 2:10pm, so not bad. Close by we also came across a blue plaque for the novelist William Golding (though I say that as if I've read any more than Lord of the Flies).

Anyway, a nice daytrip out. Hopefully it won't take another 12 years for Salisbury to pique my interest again. Actually, I've still got Stonehenge to do (having been impressed by the automobile equivalent), so we're bound to be back at some stage.

(Needless to say, lots of photographs from our trip)

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Ice age

Brrrr. After seeing us right through the coldest January that I've known in Southampton, our boiler's decided to pack up today. And just when we were about to have a few days off work too. Our hopes are now pinned on a visit tomorrow from British Gas that will revive the ailing machine and allow us to make something of the weekend.

Getting academic about it for a moment, because we typically have an open fire going in the living room, the rest of the house usually feels (relatively) cold. But now that the central heating's on the fritz, it's abundantly clear just how much of a difference it normally makes to things.

Clearly my years in the south have officially softened me up too much.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Cambrian smackdown

There are few things more satisfying than having one of your long-held views vindicated. Today's WUN seminar, actually broadcast out of Penn State, gave me one of those moments.

The Cambrian explosion is the name given to the geologically "sudden" appearance of most major animal groups about 530 million years ago. As fossil strata go, it represents a strikingly singular event, when life on Earth appeared to go from nothing to being prodigiously well-stocked with a diverse plethora of forms. Sort-of like the "big bang" of biology. However, I've never bought it.

It probably stems in part from a deep-seated unease with a seemingly ex nihilo creation event. But I was also largely won over by molecular clock evidence years ago, and have been perennially sceptical of over-confident palaeontological assertions about the lack of Precambrian fossils. This in spite of being trained up as a "whole organism" biologist with only a scant grasp of things molecular.

Anyway, today's seminar was delivered by the evolutionary biologist Blair Hedges. And he played something of a blinder with his seminar. He started off in an ever-so-slightly dull fashion with evolutionary trees, and how they can be redrawn to show how the separation of branches has occurred through time. So far, so pedestrian. He then drew in some work he's done with nobody's favourite group of organisms: the eubacteria. Through some clever analysis of all sorts of factors (including GC-content), he showed how the evolution of bacteria splits modern groups into terrabacteria, who display phenotypic features that favour life on land, and hydrobacteria, who display traits more suited to aquatic existence. He also showed when the split between these groups occurred: around 3 or so billion years ago. This was news to me, but it was the tip of the iceberg in his talk.

This appearance of a specifically land-loving clade of bacteria way back in deep time points to the correspondingly early colonisation of land. Traditionally, this has been viewed as a relatively recent phenomenon, but the ancient origin of bacteria adapted to life in the dry paints the history of the Earth very differently. Expanding into the eukaryotes, Hedges showed similarly ancient diversification in plants, animals and fungi, and drew out links between evolutionary milestones and changes in life's relationship with the Earth. Specifically changes in the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and oxygen, and the succession of "Snowball Earth" events in the Neoproterozoic.

From here Hedges skipped onto specifically animal evolution, and again showed ancient splits between the major lineages; splits that have been suggested before, but which now have much greater weight as the quantity and diversity of molecular evidence relentlessly grows. He also made an observation which was new to me, but is pretty damning of fossil evidence: most modern fauna, especially small, soft-bodied animals, have a shockingly poor fossil record. Groups which must date back to at least the Cambrian only crop up in very recent strata, and some don't show up at all. So the "cast-iron" evidence of missing fossils starts looking extremely moth-eaten to say the least. Hedges posits that the Cambrian explosion, far from being a revolution in biology, actually represents a more modest change in animal diversity driven by larger size (in turn driven by atmospheric oxygen) and the appearance of preservation-conducive "hard parts".

Another interesting piece of analysis that Hedges brought to the table was the evolution of complexity. Using his revised phylogenetic and temporal trees, Hedges and his colleagues have estimated the complexity of lifeforms over the history of the Earth based on the total number of cell types. So the appearance of particular groups at specific times adds to the complexity of life on Earth. Viewed this way, the Cambrian explosion is a slight rise in a much longer trend of increasing biological complexity. Hedges used this to make the much wider claim that our apparently "Rare Earth" may not be so rare after all. Something to raise a smile (and hopes) in astrobiology circles.

Obviously, such a sweeping assessment of the evidence isn't without its critics, and I'm probably blinded by my own prejudices in my reaction to it. But it just felt good to have such long-held hunches "confirmed", slide by Powerpoint slide.

In passing, along with several colleagues, Hedges is responsible for a remarkable project called This brings together papers on phylogeny to both enable easy searches, and the construction of novel meta-phylogenies (trees of trees) based on the data collated to date. This includes a fun application which allows you to estimate the date of the last common ancestor between arbitrary organisms. For instance, for cats and humans this was about 98 million years ago. For humans and my favourite invertebrate this is a massive 981 million years ago.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Two duffers

Our skill at picking DVDs to watch is clearly much lower than that for picking cinema trips ...

Two Lovers is a moody shambles of a film. Basically, a guy (whose unexplained suicide attempt pretentiously starts the film) meets two girls: one nice, brunette, stable and Jewish; one exciting, blonde, crazy and non-Jewish. Pointless, meandering, overwrought heartache ensues. The end. The only surprise for me was that he, essentially, gets to have his cake and eat it. Or is he making a compromised decision at the end of the film that he'll regret for the rest of his life? I couldn't care less.

Broken Embraces, while considerably better and a lot less disappointing, was still something of a let-down. Almodóvar is usually very reliable, so this was something of a surprise. Split between two time levels, it tells the story of a film director and his ill-fated encounter with a beautiful actress who he steals from her jealous sugar daddy. All of the usual elements from his films are present, but they just didn't seem in place for once. The plot, for instance, seems structured strangely, so that the "mystery" to be solved actually only appears late in the film rather than being its backbone. It's not helped by the (overplayed) film-within-the-film being awful - I wasn't sure whether it was meant to be, but the reaction of the characters suggests otherwise. Anyway, still quite an alluring and attractive-to-watch film, but not up to Almodóvar's usual standards, though only really on plot grounds.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

TUPE or not TUPE?

Unexpectedly, the great institution of NOCS is undergoing a form of divorce. Formerly a marriage of convenience between the University and NERC, NOCS is now experiencing a civilised separation. What's more, NOCS is being shotgun-wedded to a scouser sister institute, POL. And the resulting union is to be known by the imaginative moniker NOC. As it happens, NOCS will still be known as NOCS, but POL is changing its maiden name to NOCL to reflect its home city and to distinguish it acronymically.

So, what's the fallout? So far, it sounds like the outcome will largely be business as usual, albeit with somewhat closer ties across NERC's centres and ostensibly clearer lines between NOC and its university partners. That's the big picture. At my bacterial level, the primary change is that I'll no longer be indentured to the University, but will now be a government wage-slave. Actually, that's not entirely accurate (or a fair characterisation of my privileged academic position). Because of TUPE, the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment), I keep all of my terms and conditions, and even my payscale. My pension is less certain, but there's a suggestion that things might actually improve there.

Anyway, this has all been a big surprise at NOCS (and, one presumes, POL; sorry, NOCL). And it's not at all clear yet what the longer term consequences will be. Ostensibly it's a positive move, but seeing as it coincides with large government-mediated cuts to the university sector, it's difficult not to be a little uneasy. It'll all come out in the wash I guess, but it has made this week more interesting than I'd been expecting.

To answer the title question, one can't not TUPE. Refusal to switch employers is equivalent to penning one's resignation letter. So I'll be TUPE-ing.