Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Free will, 2

Ding-Ding! Round 2.

APM, a long-standing combatant in my battle against my own misunderstanding, has responded to my first salvo.

First your question of why the feeling of free will should arise through evolution. Can we rule out the fact that our apparent 'free will' is a bonus from a more important evolutionary adaptation. I seem to remember discussing this with you at the end of a long pub visit some time ago. Speaking as a totally ignorant non-biologist, I could suggest that a key aid in survival is imagination, the ability to realise that rubbing the sticks together produces something more useful than splinters and that a sharpened stick is useful for both catching fish and despatching a competitor. Might it be that what we perceive as free will is actually just a consequence of a sophisticated ability to assess the environs and work through potential dangers, benefits and solutions. It might be argued that the broader ranging, or free-er the calulations the better benefit.

I like this idea. If I understand correctly, you're suggesting that the phenomenon that we perceive as free will is related to whatever mechanisms drive imagination. I guess that some "imagination subroutine" generates ideas, presumably by sifting and combining memories, then somehow evaluates them (a "simulation subroutine"?), before culling them down to the "best idea". And that, since it involves selection and "choice", this process has an associated emergent phenomenon that we perceive as free will. In this way, a reasonable connection can be drawn between a deterministic[1] algorithm for selecting novel behaviour, and the associated specific perception of free will.

While I can see the connection that you've drawn out there, I'm still hazy on whether it necessitates such feelings of freedom. But it could go some of the way to explaining why certain deterministic processes have very particular emergent phenomena associated with them. I do still find it hard to swallow that even such goal-oriented processes would generate a non-interactive perception of such specificity that cannot feedback onto them. But that's the rub I guess.

If I can get all metaphorical about it for a moment, how's about this: In the conventional view, the cogs and wheels of strict materialism manifest themselves both as external behaviour (i.e. I have a cup of tea) and a perceptual "projection" (i.e. I experience myself having a cup of tea). But this latter part is coupled one-way and does not feedback on the cogs and wheels.[2] In my non-conventional (and possibly deviant, quasi-dualist) view, the cogs and wheels of strict materialism manifest themselves in the same way, but the perceptual "projection" is somehow (and this is a huge "somehow") coupled two-way. Now, since in the former case the "projection" is solely an output, it's not obvious to me that evolution would shape it to such high precision. But if it somehow feeds back onto material events, then it's easy to see evolution making it as focused and accurate as our perceptions are.

In this sense, much as with my misguided take on quantum mechanics, I guess I'm arguing that my conception of free will relies on a form of hidden (at this time) variables. I don't doubt that a (large?) part of behaviour in all animals operates at a sub-free-will level, for instance reflex actions. But part of my subjective experience suggests that there's more to it than this, and that aspects of perception that are essentially coercive (pain, pleasure) don't make a lot of sense if the coercion is only operating on something that cannot respond to it. Admittedly, there's still the possibility that what we perceive as pain and pleasure is merely an outcome of deterministic feedback loops in our heads, but my objection to this is that they're pretty refined for things that, essentially, don't do anything.

My hunch is that evolution, through the production of deterministic brains that process information into detailed representations of the real world, has somehow accessed hidden variables that currently lie outside our understanding of the material universe. These variables permit functionality beyond that attributable to atoms and electrons. But having just written that, it sounds like a load of old tosh and the road to mysticism to me.

This leads on to another of your points, regarding why we might have developed pain and pleasure sensations. This seems to be assuming that our conscious is outside our biological entity. If our consciousness is just a rather sophisticated computer then it is no surprise that we are aware of our senses relaying important information to it as it has clearly been developed to take a longer view than a simple reflex action.

Be gone Dualist Demons! ;-) Yes, I suppose that I am arguing for a more complicated relationship between matter and mind. Part of the problem in all of this is that I don't believe we have any good ideas about what consciousness is "made" of. It isn't obviously made of atoms, nor is it anything that seems attributable to the various force fields that pervade us. It clearly isn't "contained" within a single "master neuron", but if it's a distributed phenomenon, what substrate is it spread across? That said, it's also obvious from a wide range of evidence that, whatever it is, it's intimately related to the organic material between our ears. Such that, among other things, injuries in specific areas affect it in predictable and catastrophic manners.

However, if we assume that consciousness isn't free (i.e. two-way interactive), and that it simply represents the working out of conventional deterministic processes, I don't think it follows that it's "no surprise" that it contains such well-honed perceptions such as those provided by our senses. A one-way connection between neural physiology and consciousness would effectively make the latter invisible to evolution. But I appreciate that sentence does take something of a dualist perspective on the nature of consciousness!

Finally, just to clarify something, I'm uneasy with the argument that we don't know all of physics yet so there might be another explanation for free will as it seems to dodge the question. Your comment on it being extremely unlikely to have arisen by coincidence sails a little too close to concerns over the evolution of the eye too perhaps?

It's a fair cop. Falling back on as-yet-unknown physics is a weak argument. But I do think (possibly erroneously) that our perceptions lie outside of what we currently know about physics. And I don't just mean that we haven't ironed out the details, I mean that there does not yet appear to be anything like a clear mapping from the observable quantities of physics (particles, waves) to what goes on in our heads. Putting it flippantly: what is my pain (pleasure/love/hate/joy/fear) made from? I don't doubt that it's made from something material, but I don't think that we have a good handle on quite what yet.

Re: Eye evolution, I do hope you're not suggesting I've gone over to the Dark Side! ;-) Actually, re-reading the above, I do sound a bit like some counter-revolutionary dualist. Time, perhaps, to stop digging ...

[1] When I say "deterministic" here, I don't mean to exclude stochastic processes. I really just mean processes whose outcomes are not guided by anything that science is unaware of (if I can double-negative myself). Either ones that are completely deterministically driven by past events and a system's state, or those which are completely stochastic and independent of history or the current state of the system. Basically, not "free will" which, as conventionally understood, is some kind of additional "quintessence" that can independently (i.e. non-deterministic) and purposefully (i.e. non-stochastic) drive a system.

[2] In fact, since we have no good idea where this "projection" is, or even what it's "made" of, there are reasons to get suspicious of this picture from the get-go, but I don't want to get back into that for now. Not least because I don't have any good ideas about this either.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Envisioned dread

Tonight we caught the cinematic version of Cormac McCarthy's 2006 post-apocalyptic novel The Road. Having originally read and liked the novel back in 2008 (if "liked" is the word for such an unsparing read), I've been wondering what the "Hollywood treatment" might do to it. In short, very little. Like the book, the film is a powerful if desperately bleak vision of a shattered humanity on a dying Earth. The film makers have done the novel proud, and it remains a horrific rendition of the end of civilisation and the extinction of the future.

In passing, it's pretty strange to have seen the film while gradually playing through the atomic holocaust of Fallout 3. It being a while since I read The Road, I thought the game had a pretty bleak setting. It now looks positively jolly.

Not Batman

Safe to say, this is a pretty unusual entry both for this blog and in the pantheon of graphic novels.

Logicomix, written by two Greek academics, Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou (plus two graphic artists), is a strange and original exploration of logic and its history in the first half of the 20th century (apparently the "logicist period"). The novel is fractured across three distinct strands: a long, and periodically interrupted, present-day discussion between the authors about logic; a lecture delivered in the USA by the logician and philosopher Bertrand Russell at the outbreak of World War II; and a biographical narrative of Russell's life, both professional and personal, that in part forms the subject of this lecture. While this sounds rather complex, it provides a framework for introducing and exploring the nature of logic, its promise of providing a unifying foundation for science and rationality, and its ultimate limitations. While Russell is not responsible for logic's greatest leaps (which, in fact, dash his hopes), his faith in its power and his efforts to promote it make him a key midwife to its evolution, as well as an appropriate choice for narrator. As the novel unfolds, the early gains by the likes of Russell, his collaborator, Alfred North Whitehead, and the members of the Vienna Circle (among others) give way to the wrecking ball of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Kurt Gödel's damning incompleteness theorems.

You've got to take your hat off to the authors of this volume. It brings a whole load of serious, serious thought to a medium where, traditionally, the deepest thought is that perhaps, just perhaps, Batman has ambiguous morality.[1] And it does so while still being a pretty easy read, and one that uses cross-linking narrative strands and trendy post-modern self-referencing to dodge potentially dry, stodgy point-making. Personally, I didn't learn an awful lot that I wasn't already (partially) aware of, but I don't think I'm the ideal audience. While the authors hail from academia, they're keen that such an important subject is communicated as widely as possible. And I think they'll generally be pretty successful given this novel.

Where the novel doesn't quite succeed is in making Russell serve as his own biographer from his 1939 lecture. This seemed unnecessary to me, since the (somewhat post-modern) discussion between the authors could have quite happily served the same job. And the portentousness of the timing is never quite realised or justified. I can only assume that beginning the novel with a direct reference to WWII is somehow supposed to either shed light on our own time, or to someone conjure a compare-and-contrast between rationality and senseless violence. Or something. If I'd been the authors, I'd definitely have either ditched this strand or been a lot more explicit about what its relevance was. Oh, and I might have soft-pedalled on the Greek Tragedy sections as well.

But, all that said, a pretty unique and engaging stab at something new. Consider my hat doffed.

[1] I'm saying this like I'm some sort of expert on graphic novels. I'm not - I've only read a handful in total, and while I like to think that I've chosen well and that they weren't brain-dead, they do include Aliens vs. Predator.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

A Momentary Lapse of Consumption

Uncharacteristically, we remembered Earth Hour this year, and managed to organise ourselves with enough candles (and fuel for the fire!) to take us through the hour. We also managed, for the first time ever, to get the house down to zero electricity consumption [*]. To date, our best has been ~50 watts, but this evening we hit rock bottom as evidenced by this (shamefully out of focus) photograph ...

Of course, it is still something of a token event, and after 21:30 we almost immediately boiled the kettle as usual for an evening drink (~3000 watts), but I suppose that we did temporarily slow our CO2 production. Nothing on the news though to suggest the wider significance of the event. Perhaps climate change fatigue has set in.

[*] Actually only near-zero since we left a handful of devices on - the electricity meter for starters. But these consumed less than 1 watt, so the meter struck out at zero for the whole hour.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Internal Report

Whew. As noted in an earlier post, after many (many) fits and starts, we finally have a reasonable run of our Medusa ecosystem model. I've also wrapped up (but not yet "submitted") an internal report describing the model and a default test run. Not exactly the most accurate model ever, as the document makes plain, but passable (so long as you don't look too carefully at the Taylor diagrams). Anyway, by way of marking this unimpressive feat, I fed the model description to Wordle ...

Wordle: My internal report

Click on the graphic above for a full-size, full-terminology version. I was pleased to see that it identifies state variable Pd (my favourite phytoplankton group) as the most important concept.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Open Day

We had our annual Open Day for the public yesterday. Five and a half hours to show off our wares to the interested (or politely pretending to be) citizens of Southampton.

Although modelling is not something that obviously lends itself to a show-and-tell, each year we wheel out our secret weapon, the Pufferfish globe, and put together a series of animations from our work to try to make simulated reality a little more tangible to everyone else.

This time around, we've managed to get our model, MEDUSA, working well enough in high resolution [1] for us to add biogeochemistry into the mix. Scientifically speaking, the actual detail of the resulting movies leaves something to be desired, but our concerns are easily brushed under the public relations carpet because of the model's aesthetic appeal.

First up, mixed layer depth ...

Which influences the submarine light field and, to a first approximation, the seasonal cycle of phytoplankton (here diatoms + non-diatoms) ...

Which, in turn, govern the rise of grazing zooplankton populations (here microzooplankton + mesozooplankton) ...

But why, given all of the light, are the tropics so empty of plankton, well, that'll be the nutrients (here the nitrogen ones) ...

And finally, what's going on in the Southern Ocean where there are lots of nutrients, well, that'll be the micronutrient iron ...

We seemed to get a pretty good turnout this year. Certainly, our room was generally well-attended, though we did have a number of inexplicable (i.e. not lunchtime) troughs in public interest.

Generally, the feedback we got was really positive. Everyone loves the globe, and while it's clearly the best part of our exhibition for many people [2], a lot of people were more interested in the underlying science. And not just the simple "what's that?" stuff either. Quite a few people got me to go into a lot of depth on what some of the movies were showing, and a number even got me onto topics that were quite far removed from what the movies actually showed.

Interestingly, and in spite of current opinion polls, there were less attendees skeptical of climate change this year. I've not had anyone really hostile to the science yet [3], but I did have to argue science's corner a couple of times more last year. This time around the only skeptical visitor that I had was a retired engineer who, while not entirely convinced that the ongoing changes lay outside natural variability, was also pretty skeptical of the (so-called) skeptics because of their tactics. He could clearly see that they weren't interested in getting to the bottom of the problems they raised, and that they were just stirring things up. Anyway, I don't think I convinced him, but I hope I was able to clarify things on a few points for him.

Much as with last year's Open Day, I found the whole day a lot of fun. It's always really satisfying to show people something new and to be able to answer their questions on it. And the enthusiasm of our visitors is pretty infectious as well. Working on the same subject day after day is a pretty good way of losing sight of how interesting that subject really can be. The Open Day is a great way of getting a refresher.

In passing, aside from the movies that we showed on our globe, I also thought it would be a good idea to make a movie of what our day looked like. So I set up a time-lapse that ran for the whole period that we were open for business. Even though I look like (= am) an untidy slob, I think it turned out pretty well ...

[1] Well, high for now - we'll be describing it as "medium" before too long!

[2] I lost track of the number of people who only asked about how the globe (rather than the science) worked, and how much it cost.

[3] But would they come to the Open Day in the first place? Probably not - such a faith requires the nourishing effects of unquestioning ignorance.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Free Will, 1

The other week BS engaged me in a further discussion of free will, but we came unstuck largely because my descriptions of my viewpoint are opaque and/or incomplete. So I'm going to try to outline them more fully here so that we can have another go.

First, though, I should just clear up why I'm interested in this at all. It certainly has no obvious connection to my professional interest in things planktonic. Instead, it just boils down to a desire to know what's right (= maximally accurate; I'm a scientist after all) about the most immediate of our impressions of the world. I don't actually care if I'm wrong in my views below, but I would like to know what the right (cf. clarification immediately above) answer is. As it happens, I don't expect a right answer to appear in my lifetime, but it would still be useful to know if (or where) my reasoning is completely off the mark.

Anyway, it actually might be best if I first characterise (potentially mischaracterise) what I understand of the mainstream alternative view. Essentially, this boils down to machines such as ourselves (and I'm happy to see us as machines) being the sum of stochastic and/or deterministic processes and nothing else. So, any appearance of freedom in our actions is actually the outcome of nothing more than vast numbers of atoms interacting according to the boring rules of classical physics or the random whims of QM. Of course, a purely deterministic system with no random elements (which, ironically, I believe the universe to be) can be sufficiently complex to prevent prediction, but such chaos is still fundamentally dull determinism. Essentially, a pachinko machine, however complex, is still a pachinko machine.

In this view, the currently known laws of physics are taken at face value, and since there is nothing in them to allow other influences on the material universe, that means there really is nothing out there that permits popular conceptions of free will. Of course, I would further argue that said currently known laws also have nothing in them to in any way explain my subjective experiences, free or otherwise. By this I mean that the qualia that I experience as an everyday fact of life are (as far as I understand) not included in any current model of physics. Of course, it's possible that we just don't yet see how they fall out of conventional physics, but they seem of such a different quality to other phenomena that I don't much rate this line of argument.

Instead, I interpret these latter points to mean that our knowledge is seriously incomplete, and that there are aspects of physics of which we are still ignorant (possibly even unknown unknowns). For instance, the existence of hypothetical "materials", such as the exotically-titled dark matter and dark energy, and our near-complete ignorance of their nature, is strongly suggestive of such gaps. Not, of course, that I would ascribe our subjective experiences to these alien properties (cf. His Dark Materials), since that's far too "god-of-the-gaps" for me to countenance. My argument here is instead that these are simply illustrative of the incompleteness of current physics, which, I'd add, is still stubbornly incomplete (and un-unified) even on the ostensibly well-understood topics of QM and GR.

So, by way of summary, I would caricature the mainstream interpretation of the world as follows:

  • At root, all processes are either stochastic (QM) or deterministic (classical) in origin
  • These uninfluenceable origins are then filtered up through, or compounded by, a long series of largely deterministic (classical) processes to give an extremely diverse set of outcomes (the richness of the universe)
  • One of these outcomes are the suite of qualia that we each subjectively experience, these are essentially emergent phenomena from underlying physical processes
  • Our (whatever "our" actually means here) relationship with these qualia is one of complete passiveness, with an influence similar to that of a cinema goer on the film being shown
  • However, one of these qualia is the perception that, unlike the cinema goer, we are free to influence events, but this is merely another facet of the emergent property that we each experience and label as consciousness

Anyway, this is all just background to soften up the territory for my resplendent arguments to wash over and conquer. Obviously.

While I naturally accept almost all of the above, my view is that a number of features of our subjective experience are glossed over in this treatment. I don't, for even a second, have any underlying explanation for these features, and I completely accept that I'm arguing from a position of theoretical weakness. In this regard, my position is not one that easily survives the application of Occam's razor. Worse, it evokes the spectre of dualism, and effectively puts me into compromising positions with a number of other dubious propositions. But I'm getting ahead of myself, or possibly just presenting my caveats ahead of time such that my main arguments are the last things read.

My stance is primarily a biological one, grounded in a handful of features that I find hard to ascribe to an utterly passive emergent phenomenon. First of all, and I've already made this point, I don't think that we should dismiss out of hand the difficulty of squeezing subjective experience into mainstream scientific understanding. This stands regardless of whether the rest of my argument does, though I'd cheerfully agree that my view has as much trouble with this as the mainstream does.

Secondly, our perception of possessing free will is an odd thing. Many (if not most) people take free will at completely face value, to the extent that this whole article will seem absurd (second only, perhaps, to the mainstream view of complete denial). Now, my point here is that one of our qualia is a highly developed sense of being in control. If we really aren't in control, then this is a singularly strange conviction. Particularly so when one considers how it might have evolved. If I absolutely cannot influence the world, then why on Earth has my mind been shaped so that an emergent property of it is the distinct impression that I can? Simply put, I clearly don't need this perception if I really can't control things. What's the worst I can do? Have a pointless metaphysical sulk?

Thirdly, there are a number of further aspects of our perception that exist to channel our behaviour in very particular directions, and which are clearly evolved. For example, we have qualia of pain and pleasure which strongly impose themselves on the rest of our perception, and encourage us to do things that, biologically speaking, are sensible. Pain obliges us to avoid situations that compromise our survival, while pleasure rewards us in situations that are beneficial, if not for us, then at least for the genes which built us. Again, the absence of any actual free will to control events would make these very strange adaptations.

By way of summary, it seems improbable to me that evolution should shape our subjective experience to include these sorts of features if they then play no role in subsequent events (beyond some sort of cinema experience for an ill-defined "self"). If consciousness truly were an entirely passive emergent phenomenon, it seems extremely unlikely to me that it would be such a faithful representation of the world, one which included carrots and sticks, and one which explicitly conveys the feeling of control. These bells and whistles would simply be utterly superfluous, so not something evolution would be able to finesse.

Of course, it could perhaps be argued that all of these aspects of consciousness could still be a by-product of the unconscious activity of deterministic processes in our brains. By firing in response to particular stimuli, neurons coincidentally create an emergent property which feels to us like consciousness (and, of course, actually is us). However, as before, I'd argue that, if anything, such a coincidental phenomenon would be unlikely.

Anyway, I'll pause here rather than drag this super-long post out much further. As I noted right at the start, my primary interest here is in being right. Not in the sense of the particular ideas expressed here being right per se, but more in ensuring that I'm not labouring under some misapprehension when the truth (well, a closer approximation to it) is already to hand. I'm not so wedded to the the thoughts above that I won't throw them over for a more complete explanation of our subjective experiences, but my understanding of "the opposition" is that it, too, lacks some key pieces of the puzzle. Unless I'm misunderstanding it, in which case I hope that someone will put me right.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Wild Thing

The Wild Things by Dave Eggers is an odd book to both read and recount. It's a novelisation of Eggers' screenplay of the recent film of the well-loved children's classic. Unsurprisingly, given the author's relationship to the film, it's an extremely faithful write-up. But, like the film, it's a strange beast, simultaneously completely unnecessary while also reasonably well-done. I don't really think that original picture book needed either a film or a book, but now that they exist I can see some merit in both. Essentially, the latter projects give the picture book's Max something of a contemporary backstory and motivation, and then tell a nice child's-eye-view of human relationships through the medium of monsters. Interesting, and well done, but still not something that the original book really needed. I remain unoffended by the recent incarnations, but I can understand why purists might well feel part of their childhood has been manhandled inappropriately.

In passing, C secured me a signed, hardback edition of the book which is pretty cool either way.


It's coming up for almost a year since my last trip to the trashy but enjoyable worlds of Neal Asher and his galaxy-spanning creation, the Polity. But with a birthday and Christmas not long gone, he's been back on my book shelf and has now floated to the top. Orbus, while still technically a Polity novel, is set within Asher's parallel Spatterjay series. So vicious, crustacean-like space aliens and the series' eponymous super-virus are the order of the day.

Picking up only shortly after the climax of The Voyage of the Sable Keech, the novel is largely centred around three characters from the earlier book. The eponymous Orbus, an Old Captain from fleeing from a dark history on the planet Spatterjay; Sniper, an experienced military AI used as something of a free agent by the Polity; and Vrell, a renegade Prador alien now, like Orbus, infected by the empowering Spatterjay virus. The former two pursue the latter into the buffer zone that separates the Prador Kingdom from human-controlled space, but Vrell is more interested in exacting revenge on the Prador King, Oberon, the secret of whose prolonged reign he has uncovered. But as all of these various interests clash violently, they uncover a deeper and much darker truth about the origin of the Spatterjay virus, a revelation about the past that threatens the future.

I could go into much more depth with the plot here, but there's really no point. It's perfectly serviceable, and carries one along through an enjoyable read, but it's basically pure pulp. And I could go into character, but that would be a complete waste of time, since Asher's heroes, while they do leap off the page, owe more to pop-up books than literary fiction. They're fun to be around, and I do enjoy stories that spend time with and "humanise" misunderstood space aliens, but they are not ones for the ages.

All that said, Orbus is still a fun read. I'd definitely rate it more than the latter Ian Cormac novels and his Hilldiggers. There's something rather more-ish about his trashy appropriation of science fiction ideas and lingo, and his fusion of it with great heaps of violent action and visceral body horror. There's no one else that I read who manages this quite so successfully. And, to be fair to Asher, while he may be science-fiction-lite, he's still considerably more solid and thought-through than the vast majority of what passes for the genre.

One danger in this book, and something that cropped up in his earlier short story collection The Gabble, is Asher's tying up of key aspects of his fictional world. He's nowhere close to it yet, but there's something of a whiff of Asimov's merging of his Robot and Foundation series. These were great but separate series until late in his career where he decided, probably unwisely, to shoehorn them into a single future history. With the result of some unedifying latter novels. Asher's not there yet, but in linking everything up to the Jain, he's potentially setting himself up for greatly diminishing returns. Which is a shame since, as The Engineer showed, the Jain have a lot more potential than as some sort of convenient "bad guys".

Anyway, as ever, I don't think I'll be ditching Asher any time soon. "Guilty pleasure" being the operative description.

Reality distortion

Since cinema is a medium directed at our primary senses, it's one where, as a first approximation, we take things far more literally than in other media such as novels or the spoken word. As a result, tricks are available to a director to deliberately pull the wool over our eyes, and to present inaccurate or distorted versions of cinematic reality as if they were wholly bona fide.

Martin Scorsese's latest film, Shutter Island, uses a full range of such tricks. We have memories, false memories, dreams, hallucinations and even a further deception that I won't spoil. Practically no trick is left unused in this twisty tale of an escaped inmate in a secure island facility.

But using these tricks well is a difficult task which only a few films have successfully achieved. This is not one of them. By starting early, and using so many of them (or at least their hallmarks at first), the film makes the viewer skeptical from the get-go, so that the final outcome is much less of a surprise than intended. In fact, bar one unexpected but completely implausible angle, the tricks actually undermine the film. Anyone who's seen more than a handful of "reality distorters" will realise all too quickly that they're being fed a line, and the longer that the film twists on, it becomes more and more obvious what the underlying reality is.

I suspect that Scorsese was aiming for less and less obvious, or just more and more confusing, but it's abundantly clear what he's up to (if not in detail, certainly in broad sweep). One thing that the film did do for me was to remind me how much more skilful the likes of Mulholland Drive and The Sixth Sense are in this sort of game. Both of those are far more consistent, and restrained, in their use of "tricks", with considerably more satisfying results. Here, Scorsese has thrown everything onto the screen, but more really is less. Admittedly, the original novel may be the source of his problems, but what you can get away with in a novel is quite different for a film, and Scorsese should have known that.

Overall, probably a film better left unseen (or hallucinated).

Friday, 12 March 2010

Fudging your model

As an ecosystem modeller, part of my job is fudging our model so that it better fits observations. Said fudging occurs because the model is a highly inadequate representation of the real world, but one which captures some first order features, and one which can capture them just a little bit better if I tweak this specific rate and that half-saturation constant ...

So it was with a degree of sympathetic leniency (or perhaps schadenfreude) that I watched this week's Horizon entitled "Is Everything We Know About The Universe Wrong?", which concerned itself with the creeping modification of the so-called Standard Model.

While this model is an evolving, lumbering beast dealing with, well, everything, it is still relatively simple, and it both agrees well with current observations and informs cosmologists about the history of the universe. The most familiar part of this history, the Big Bang, was originally proposed in the 1930s and has come to be the prevailing view of the universe's evolution.

But the relative homogeneity of the universe (i.e. that it looks pretty similar in all directions) did not seem a likely outcome of a cosmic explosion, which led to the development of cosmic inflation in the late 1970s. This posits that, at very early stage of its evolution when it was still homogeneous, the universe rapidly expanded exponentially, allowing this same-ness to persist and ultimately give rise to the current appearance of the universe. Inflation explains the smoothness of the cosmic microwave background and got a big boost from its predictions of the "wobbles" measured by the WMAP mission.

However, subsequent work on the motion of stars within galaxies has found those at the periphery are inexplicably orbiting galactic central point too quickly for theory to permit. This strongly implies the presence of extra matter, but of a kind that is neither visible to conventional astronomy nor interacts with the regular matter with which we're familiar. But since the evidence strongly points to its existence, dark matter has been postulated to augment the Standard Model.

Meanwhile, work studying the expansion of the universe has found that, instead of expanding at a constant or declining rate, the rate of expansion is actually accelerating. This violates the expectations of Hubble's Law, suggests a different future for the universe than previously expected, and poses another problem for the Standard Model. Clearly some force is operating to accelerate expansion, but as it too is imperceptible, the moniker dark energy has come into use to describe it.

Finally, even more recent work (which is still a little current to be widely accepted) has found that a portion of the observed universe is moving in an unexpected manner. In keeping with the ominous naming convention of earlier developments, this has become known as dark flow, and it hints at yet other unknown processes or factors that the Standard Model needs to accommodate. The discoverers of this phenomenon have suggested that this anomalous movement is a consequence of some distant portion of the universe that lies beyond what is visible to us (i.e. because of inflation).

What the programme did very well was to convey the evolutionary nature of science, as well as (in spades!) the provisional nature of developments. Admittedly, the incremental embellishment of the Standard Model with successively more ropey postulations was not exactly science at its most edifying. One definitely formed the view that astronomy may be on a highway to nowhere with all of the "dark X" additions, none of which have convincingly provided anything tangible concerning their existence. Each of them may well improve the predictions of the Standard Model (inflation being a particularly clear example), but none appear to be more of demonstrable substance than a few lines of mathematics. I suspect that each development has been made with the hope that, somewhere down the line, a deeper understanding of reality will clear things up. But with this advance still nowhere in sight (and even the critics on the programme were less than forthcoming on this point), our understanding of cosmology seems increasingly precarious. Still, leaving the viewer with an open-ended finale to the story is a useful corrective to the done-and-dusted school which paints a rather static portrait of how science works.

What the programme did very badly was the repetitive use of footage to convey each of the facets of the story. So, for the big bang there was an explosion; for inflation a red balloon repeatedly expanding; dark matter became magnetised metal balls attracting one another; dark energy was bizarrely represented as a slowly spreading slick of tar; while dark flow was an odd star-motion graphic that looked suspiciously like stock footage for a black hole documentary. Using each of these images once or twice would have been acceptable, especially since they were at least a partially imaginative attempt to convey difficult concepts, but bludgeoning the viewer time and time again was stupid. From now on I'm not going to be able to imagine cosmic inflation without thinking of a big red balloon. Thanks for that Horizon.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Geoengineering feedback

Quite a while back I submitted a response to a Channel 4 query concerning geoengineering, and I copied this here. Needless to say, and much as I predicted, I never heard a thing back about it. Anyway, through a rather circuitous route, I've found that Channel 4 did prepare an article on the topic, and they did use what I sent them (although only a small fraction of it). Still, I can't complain since I got three short paragraphs to myself, and I was one of only six scientists they quoted. Clearly my campaign to become a media-whore continues. The full article can be found here.

In other news, another survey that I completed for our funding agency has spawned a public, sorry, stakeholder engagement programme to gauge wider views on geoengineering. It's open for anyone to complete, and the more people who do, the better. It can be found here.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010


Although it's served me well over many years (in spite of a near-complete lack of updates), I've finally had to throw in the towel on Animation Shop. Since I got into time-lapse movies, it's increasingly been showing its age and lack of sophistication. So, against the advice of some stinging reviews (and a two star recommendation at Apple itself), I've finally upgraded our home version of QuickTime. As ever, a handy test for my new toy came in an obliging cat shape ...

So, drawing on the vast experience gained from the point-and-click creation of a single movie file, how does QuickTime shape up? Well, first of all, it worked. Which is more than I can say for Animation Shop and the plethora of freeware tools I've got. Secondly, the resulting movie looks pretty good on our home machine, and weighs in at only 15 Mb (from a pre-compression version closer to 160 Mb). Thirdly, the movie breezed up to Flickr where, again, it plays pretty well.

However, I would add that the mechanics of the creation process are pretty lame compared to Animation Shop. Being generous, I'd describe them as "good for beginners", since what there is of them consists of pointing to the first image in a sequence and then letting QuickTime assemble the movie (which it either does telepathically, or by grabbing every single image in a directory). One definitely had (much) more of a sense of being in control with Animation Shop, even if the package sometimes didn't pony up the goods in the end. That said, QuickTime copies the Animation Shop trick of essentially hanging while it's working, giving the user the escalating suspicion that something has badly gone wrong. How hard can it be for a piece of software to speak to Windows while it's working just to let the operating system know that it's not crashed? Pretty bloody hard it would seem.

Anyway, overall my £20 seems well-spent thusfar, but yet again I'm unimpressed by Apple. The media perception is of a company that can do no wrong (in large part because the media is pretty amnesiac), but again and again I'm left mystified by the gap between their image and the underlying reality. The other week it was with iTunes and its Genius playlist creator. After being badgered for months by iTunes to switch this on, I finally succumbed only to discover that my (somewhat aged) iPod, which iTunes already knows all about, can't handle Genius. This is stupid for two reasons: first, iTunes should have known that the two iPods that connect to it can't handle Genius (plus, that we don't use iTunes itself to play music); second, how hard can it be to implement a work-around that turns a Genius playlist into a real playlist that I can dump onto my iPod? Idiots. But the media just slips into drool-mode whenever some shiny new Apple toy comes along. And don't even get me started on Mac Os X ...

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Saffron and Tim

Up to London on Saturday for Saffron and Tim's wedding. We began with a nice ceremony in Marylebone Town Hall, followed by a tour of the busy back streets of north London by bus, and then a great reception in a hired-out Coach and Horses in Clerkenwell (with, it must be said, excellent food and dessert).


There's a more complete set of photographs over here (mostly taken by C, I should add).

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

For "Saturn", read "Iraq"

Another day, another science fiction novel with a thinly veiled commentary on contemporary politics, this time by Paul J. McAuley, the British botanist-turned-novelist. Much as Iain (M.) Banks' latest poses questions about the (strangely familiar) activities of secret agencies, The Quiet War paints a (strangely familiar) tale of a trumped-up threat being used as a pretext for an invasion by superpowers.

The threat here is the technology, bio- and nano-, used by the "Outers" who live in the far flung corners of the solar system. The superpowers are three politico-economic blocks who have survived, but still struggle with, climate chaos on Earth. Convinced that the Outers are diverging too greatly from conventional human genomics, and fired up by an adherence to a quasi-religious version of Gaia, these powerful factions slowly orchestrate a series of minor events that both weakens the unity of the Outers and provides a pretext for a swift and decisive conquest.

Against this dramatic background, the novel describes the lives of characters both peripheral and central to the unfolding events. Sri Hong-Owen is a leading Earth geneticist, allied to the belligerent forces, but drawn to the scientific excellence of the Outers. Dave #8 is one of her genetically engineered charges, a clone grown and trained to act as a sleeper agent in the unsuspecting Outer colonies. Macy Minnot, an ecosystem engineer happy to escape Earth, finds herself out of a job and on the run when Earth agents sabotage the goodwill project on Callisto that employs her. Loc Ifrahim is one of her pursuers, an ambitious Earth diplomat tasked with sowing dissent in the Outer colonies. Meanwhile, Cash Baker is a combat pilot, enhanced and enmeshed in an advanced military spacecraft, and awaiting the end of the "quiet war".

Overall, a bit of a disappointing read from McAuley. It's competently written, and I'll definitely be reading the sequel volume(s), but it's a fairly uninspiring read. There are very few stand-out moments or characters, and even the technology that McAuley envisages feels stale and unimaginative. He even includes some plankton-based material from his former academic life that's handled in a decidedly ham-fisted manner (and I say this as a Skeletonema fan).

It's particularly disappointing because McAuley has a great back catalogue of work. For instance, his early book Red Dust is easily one of my favourite science fiction novels. It imagines a fantastically baroque future Mars in which a failing Chinese attempt at terraforming is the backdrop for an incredibly rich journey that eventually takes in a battle atop Olympus Mons, a virtual reality version of Heaven from Chinese mythology, and an benevolent, anarchistic AI that fashions itself after Elvis. It's a joy to read by contrast, and it casts a long shadow over this book.

Which isn't to say that this is a bad book, just that it's a little grey and uninspired. It may well be that McAuley will step things up in the successor volume(s), but I'll definitely be waiting for them in paperback. And even then, not exactly with bated breath.

Duck arrival

Although (by official edict) I'm not supposed to be paying attention to the ducks this year (at least, not telling anyone about them or e-mailing around photographs), I am going to record that, as of now, they are back in the quad. We have one female and one male. They're making do with the trough at the moment since the pond is out of commission pending "improvements". So it looks like another summer of chicks, cuteness, murder and (especially this year) starvation is on the cards.