Friday, 24 December 2010

A great start

After a much delayed journey pole-wards yesterday to Scotland for Christmas (planes and trains), I then put the icing on the cake by slipping on ice almost immediately after arriving at Dundee train station. The upshot of which is that I'm "enjoying" my annual, week-long pilgrimage to the ancestoral home with a twisted (right) ankle. Excellent. Actually, if it were anyone other than me, I'm sure that I'd have found the irony of it pretty funny. Arse.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Coriander Lounge

Partly because C's family were visiting, partly because it was my birthday, and partly just to get back on that horse, we went out last night to the same restaurant I had an adventure in last month. No repeat visits to the A&E this time, but it confirmed that it was a great place to eat. I was also alarmed to notice just how heavy the door I fell through is. No wonder I'm (ever so slightly) scarred for life.

Scandanavian Rebus

While Inspector Rebus has, to put it mildly, had something of mixed success in his translation to television (cf. John Hannah's woeful miscasting), the screen (big and small) has been much more kind to Sweden's Inspector Wallander, of whom there are already three distinct incarnations (including a recent UK production with Kenneth Branagh in the lead role). Having enjoyed these, and reasoning that film and TV producers only back sure things, I gave the biggest Rebus fan I know (C) the first of Henning Mankell's Wallander novels, Faceless Killers, as a present. So, how fares the crime genre across the North Sea?

The novel opens on a cold winter night with an elderly farmer, alerted by disconcerting calls for help, discovering a horrifying scene in the farmhouse of his old friends and neighbours. Expecting a routine, rural call-out, the middle-aged Inspector Wallander arrives to find a dead husband and his nearly lifeless wife, both victims of a brutal assault and torture. The motive for the crime is unknown, but the investigation gets its only divisive clue in the dying words of the wife, "Foreign". Leaked to the press by a junior officer, this information adds fuel to the simmering hate of Sweden's Far Right groups. As well as struggling to understand the initial murders, Wallander now has to contend with an attack on a refugee encampment, and a further racially-motivated murder of a Somali refugee. His investigation of the former crime leads him to uncover uncomfortable facts about the murdered farmer, while the latter crime draws in murky connections between a police officer and racists. And all the while Wallander has his personal demons to contend with: a failed marriage; an estranged daughter; and his elderly artist father, dismissive of his choice of career.

Much like the Rebus novels, this is solidly enjoyable genre fare. It has all the right ingredients, mixing in a perplexing initial mystery, a number of tantalising if ultimately unhelpful leads, victims that are not quite what they first seem, and a solution that reads like an entirely plausible fusion of Wallander's luck and skill. I particularly liked the fact that the investigation unfurled at a realistic pace; normally, fictional crimes are solved frenetically within days, but here the pieces take time to fall into place. The novel also does an convincing job with Wallander himself, quickly and economically establishing where he is in life, and deftly filling in his, and his family's, history. While Rebus has some rough edges, Wallander has quite a number more, and his creation as a borderline unlikeable character, with both talents and flaws, is handled well. Of course, it also helps that it's been translated with what seems a lot more care than another, much more famous, Swedish novel that I've recently read.

Comparing with Rebus is quite instructive. As another first detective novel in a long series, I think Wallander gets off to a much better start than Rebus. The latter's first outing (read pre-blog) was a rather clichéd start that, for me at least, made the cardinal error of moving Rebus from the role of investigator to that of the key to the mystery. To be fair to Rankin, when he first wrote Rebus, this plotline was probably less of a cliché than endless detective TV dramas have now made it appear. But in Faceless Killers, Mankell also gifts Wallander with a much more realistic-seeming backstory than Rebus' SAS background (and then foreground) from Knots and Crosses. This, however, also serves to make him quite a bit less sympathetic, but, straight out the box, he seems a much more three dimensional character than his Edinburgh rival did. That journey took Rebus a few more novels, but he seems to very much have gotten there from my last visit.

One minor complaint I did have with Faceless Killers is how its dénouement relies on a character with a somewhat implausibly good memory. The original murders are long cold, but a bank teller is able to pass along some key information. In Branagh's TV series, this was more plausibly (and cleverly) handled via security videos, but here it strains credulity a bit. Not seriously, but Mankell could have thought a little bit more about this critical development.

Anyway, a very good start to a series that I've certainly enjoyed on television. I suspect I'll be back here at some point before too long.

Friday, 17 December 2010

NOCS Christmas Quiz

Another Christmas tradition today: the NOCS Christmas Quiz. One that our team came oh-so-close to winning several years ago, but were defeated at the end on account of a misplayed (by me) points-doubling joker. To be fair, the jokers were blind, but if I'd played them on any round other than the one I did, we'd have won.

Anyway, drawing a veil over this catastrophe, how did we do today? In summary, we still didn't win, but our defeat wasn't quite so tainted by a gutting near miss. That said, going into the last round, we were placed joint first, but an excellent performance by one of our rivals on what was by far our worst round saw them justly take victory. As it happens we came joint second, but weathered a tie-break in which our answer was judged "more correct" than that of another rival (thanks to SXJ's knowledge of Halley's Comet visits). Our answers and score card can be seen below.

Christmas Quiz, 1

Christmas Quiz, 2

There's always next year ...

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Free will reprise

It's Christmas again. And among the regular festive highlights is our annual Biomodellers Christmas Lunch, a tradition that got off to a start in 2003. Anyway, it's normal at these events for alcohol-fuelled discussion to take a turn for the philosophical, and a regular topic for myself, APM and BS is that of (so-called) free will. By way of (biased) summary: they say "illusion"; I say "real, but I can be persuaded otherwise". Anyway, unless I'm bone-headedly mistaken, we're still in the phase of taking pot-shots at one another's ideas. However, one of the problems with our discussion is that it flares up only once or twice a year, such that the meat of it becomes attenuated and forgotten between skirmishes. To get around this, I present here some summary points to facilitate the return to (slightly) drunken hostilities next week.
  1. Stepping back from free will per se, the subjective component of consciousness itself remains singularly unexplained by current empirical science; what, for instance, is my subjectivity made from or projected onto? matter and energy alone don't obviously provide a substrate from which to weave it, at least as we currently understand them; this is, of course, as much a problem for me as for APM and BS, though I would claim it as evidence of "hidden variables"
  2. If subjective experience is simply a one-way phenomenon that is a functionally unnecessary bi-product of physico-chemical processes in our heads (i.e. akin to a real-time graph of the output of an underway computer simulation), then:
    • why is it so well-realised and coherent? (i.e. why not just a jumble of subjective phenomena);
    • why does it include features such as emotions that appear designed to channel behaviour in particular ways? (i.e. why is this necessary if things are one-way);
    • why does it include an overwhelming and well-developed sense of being "in control"? (i.e. what possible process can this sensation be an emergent property of)
  3. To try to tease BS's chain of thought out some more, regardless of whether one judges quantum systems as stochastic or cryptically deterministic (= "hidden variables"), if one subscribes to the "illusion" school of thought (ISOT), conscious decisions are either the necessary outcomes of a chain of molecular events, or random (with a dose of determinism) outcomes of the same; does this in any way square with the subjective experience of decision-making?
  4. Just to avoid any accusations of dualism (or, heaven forfend, mysticism), whatever it is I'm looking for, I expect it to be subject to physical investigation; I don't believe that this is currently true, since I'm arguing for "hidden variables", but I believe that one day this will come to pass
These are all much better (or, at least, more completely) covered elsewhere, but I hope this brief summary will allow us to short circuit the usual, time-consuming scene-setting and the misunderstandings that stem, doubtless, from my imprecise use of language. Still, I can hardly be blamed for this since, obviously, I'm merely a pachinko machine, albeit a somewhat complicated one ...

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Rebus 5

After a detour into decidedly dodgy science fiction, I thought I'd get back onto more solidly reliable genre fare with Ian Rankin's Rebus number 5 novel, The Black Book.

I actually read this a month or so back, so can't actually remember all of the various ins and outs of the plot. Suffice to say that it was a satisfyingly twisty tale that dragged in present and past murders, a suspicious hotel fire, an attack on one of Rebus' closest colleagues, and the unveiling of Big Ger, an Edinburgh kingpin darkly hinted at in earlier novels. It also skilfully balanced these crime strands with the re-appearance of Rebus' brother, Michael, from prison and his on-again-off-again relationship with his doctor girlfriend, the appropriately-named Patience.

What was particularly pleasing about this book was that it really felt like Rankin has finally hit his stride with Rebus. With great economy of narrative and character, Rankin spins out his tale, and almost effortlessly reels in the reader. By this point in the series of novels, Rebus' character, and the world that he operates within, feels satisfyingly lived-in, like a comfortable pair of slippers. Previous books have been a lot less sure-footed, and Rankin has had to take the reader by the hand more, but here things flow much more easily - perhaps just because Rankin's world-building is more complete.

Twelve novels to go.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Venusian morning

While up early today collecting Christmas presents that needed signing for from our "local" post depot, I spotted a particularly bright Morning Star ...


One tripod later, and I knocked up a time-lapse of its rise, then washout, against the backdrop of that of the sun ...

According to the astronomy app we use, Saturn is currently just a little further along the ecliptic than Venus, but there was no sign of it this morning. It's possibly just a little too faint to be seen against sunrise.

Friday, 10 December 2010

QUIP summary

One of the many sections of the electronic Je-S grant form that I had to complete earlier this week was one that summarises the work (4000 characters or less) for a non-specialist audience. This is ostensibly for non-scientists, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it's also the first point-of-entry for NERC administrators. Anyway, below is what I wrote for QUIP ...
Although climate change is happening all over the world, its effects are not spread evenly, and one area which is particularly strongly affected is the Arctic. Here, intrinsic aspects of its local climate, together with a series of positive feedback loops (where some warming causes more warming which cause even more warming ...), act to give the Arctic some of the most extreme change observed to date. A key factor in this is the amount of sea-ice that covers the Arctic Ocean. By reflecting light back into space, sea-ice plays a critical role in Arctic climate, but it has been declining year on year as the Earth warms, and experienced a record low in the summer of 2007. As well as influencing climate, the sea-ice also controls the distributions of photosynthesis and plankton, and through these is believed to play an important role in the carbon cycle of the Arctic Ocean.

Although we expect the Arctic sea-ice to continue to decline in the coming decades, the rate at which this will happen is uncertain. Some of this uncertainty is the result of limitations in our understanding of physical phenomena, while some stems from our uncertainty about future greenhouse gas emissions by human civilisation. To help resolve the consequences of this uncertainty, climate modellers routinely run multiple simulations to explore possible futures. However, understanding the fate of Arctic biological systems is less straightforward, since our models of these are complex and make simulations of the future considerably more time-consuming and expensive to perform. As a result, much of the work that peers into the future looks only at the Earth's climate and ignores changes to natural ecosystems.

To try to get around this limitation, the work proposed here in QUIP sets out to use a simplified model of the Arctic's plankton ecosystem (parameterised using some of our recent work at NOC) in conjunction with output from existing future climate simulations. In this way it will assess the future of Arctic biology without the need for expensive additional simulations, and will exploit a large range of already existing climate simulations to quantify both what may happen to ecosystems in the future, and their sensitivity to emissions scenarios and other uncertainties in our climate models.
Incidentally, I am officially not interested in hearing about typos or bad grammar in the above. It's gone to NERC now - I can't do anything about it.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Pointless violence

Another day, another anti-fees riot in London. And another slew of politicians fatuously chiding that while peaceful protest is acceptable, violent protest is an outrage. Of course, I agree with them, violent protests against the actions of the government all but never have any impact on the relevant politicians or institutions. Instead, they damage public property, disrupt the lives of otherwise uninvolved people and generally discredit the rationale for the protest.

But at the same time I suspect that, behind their polished platitudes about the centrality of peaceful protest in democracies, politicians are smugly aware that peaceful protests accomplish precisely nothing. The 2003 protests in London against the incipient Iraq War managed to attract 2 million people, but that didn't even give politicians a moments pause in their rush to start a war under false pretences. And if that many people marching against such a fatuous misuse of government power can't change anything, what hope for a smaller number of students campaigning against tripling of university fees?

No, for all my distaste for violent protest, I can't quell the thought that the only time I remember a protest accomplishing something was during the decidedly non-peaceful Poll Tax Riots of 1990. I don't think the riots then did all the work, they were just the focus of a popular swell of opposition to the government, but they were definitely instrumental in the subsequent dismantling of the Poll Tax (or, at least, that's my recollection). No, I suspect that politicians, whether they say it or not, like peaceful protests because they like pointless protests that they can nod sagely about and then entirely ignore.

Monday, 6 December 2010


I've spent the last few weeks cobbling together a research proposal called QUIP (Quantifying Uncertainty In arctic Productivity), but today finally fired it off to the tender mercies of our research council. By way of "celebrating" seeing the back of it, here's what my Case for Support looks like when fed through Wordle ...


The original can be seen here.

Anyway, what did I learn this time about the whole application-writing process?
  •   It's never to early to start using Je-S; don't underestimate the importance of morale-boosting green ticks
  •   Don't wait until the last week before starting the Pathways to Impact
  •   Check that partners are reading from the same page in good time; don't just assume
  •   Speak to PR to find out what's possible, and what sort of permissions and contacts are needed
  •   Circulate a draft of the proposal, even a rough one, well in advance of the closing date
Generally, just do stuff (much) earlier than the last week. Pretty basic, but in writing QUIP I didn't exactly conform ...

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Disaster novel

Reflecting on the books that I've written up here (virtually everything I've read since 2007), I sometimes suspect that I give things the benefit of the doubt too much, since I seem to not dislike anything, and to find good parts in everything I've read. Too polite? Too unwilling to consciously concede that I've wasted many hours on a stinker? Anyway, on this occasion, going the other way has been made very easy for me, since today's book, Ark, is a disaster novel (in more than one sense) by the British science fiction writer Stephen Baxter.

Set in the near-future, the novel takes place amidst an Earth struggling with sea level rise of a degree unimagined by today's climate scientists. Reservoirs of water within the Earth's mantle have been breeched, and the Earth is steadily being swamped by an unceasing rise in seawater that shows no sign of abatement. Confronted by projections of the total loss of land, and straining as civilisation is dissipating in the face of mass migration and dwindling resources, the remnant of the US government takes over an originally clandestine project to allow a small population to escape the Earth aboard a generation ship. The novel follows a handful of characters who become directly or indirectly involved in this effort, some of whom make the journey from the Earth to two neighbouring stars. But along the way their commitment to the project is constantly assailed, and their humanity is eroded in the face of an unprecedented disaster that forces choices that are similarly unprecedented.

Where to start? The novel puts so many feet wrong, it's got to be a centipede. Firstly, in the opening pages it sets itself up some sort of murder mystery, giving the reader a victim, an array of suspects, and an investigator to sort things out. The novel then jumps backwards a number of years to introduce the suspects and how they've got to this position, but despite the passage of many pages barely touches the murder before -when it finally catches back up to the start of the novel- solving it in a flash. A flash of "who cares?" by this point, as it happens. This initial wrong-footing sets the novel up nicely for a litany of disappointments.

Another great misstep is how Baxter handles the technological innovation that allows the interstellar journey that makes up a big chunk of the book. After much angst among (cardboard) characters about how infeasible such a voyage is, one character makes a fatuous observation about FTL travel that makes almost no sense (something about spacetime "bubbles"?), only for another "genius" character to pick it up and, again in a flash, suddenly come up with a barely explained solution. The absurdity of Baxter's writing here is revealed in all its glory when, in devising a method for getting the spaceship off Earth, he resorts to a lengthy exposition of a technology that really has been investigated, Project Orion. Cue much shoe-horning in of author research - on a subject that actually is genuinely interesting. Coming from an author venerated for "hard science fiction", this glossing over of a core aspect seems plain lazy.

The biggest crimes committed by Baxter lie with the characters that populate the novel. For one, they're largely the implausibly over-qualified scientist-leaders that have despoiled lesser science fiction novels for decades (cf. Ender's Game). And as the novel progresses they become both progressively more implausible while simultaneously less and less likeable. In part, taking the premise of the novel seriously for a moment, this is to be expected given the situation that they're thrown into, one could possibly even make the case that it's realistic. But the evolution of the characters felt pretty inexpert to me, with far too many eyebrow-raising daddy-issues being bandied about by Baxter. While, yes, I think it's important (and realistic!) that science fiction takes strong female characters seriously, Baxter's efforts here aren't doing the genre many favours.

In some respects, this aspect of Ark is a bit of throwback to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke started bludgeoning emotional responses and motivations into their otherwise two-dimensional characters. This wasn't a bad idea in principle, since science fiction is widely, and usually rightly, chastised for the lack of development of characters that appear in it. Largely this isn't a problem, or shouldn't be, since the point of science fiction is usually to explore technological "what-if" situations rather than dwell on the inner lives of characters. However, even so, as practised by the likes of Clarke, this approach led to the worst novels in his career, and managed to even turn epics such as Rendezvous with Rama (see also here) into awful soap opera-esque nonsense. As it happens, Baxter collaborated with Clarke on three books shortly before the latter's death. I haven't read them (nor am ever likely to now), but if they stick to the pattern of other late-period collaborative novels by Clarke, this might explain a lot about Ark.

One of the most annoying aspects of this débâcle of a novel is that I used to really like Baxter. Years ago he had a series of stories and novels based around the Xeelee, an alien civilisation vastly more advanced than humanity. Though they appear uninterested in humans, and never even formally reveal themselves to them, they are nonetheless perceived as a threat, and fought with for countless millennia. Eventually, humans finally work out that the disinterest shown by the Xeelee towards them is because they are actually engaged in a battle for the survival of the universe, one far more important than the petty territorial squabbles mounted by humanity. As a science fiction-clad metaphor for the cosmic indifference of the universe for people, the Xeelee rocked. So reading Ark has been a gravely disappointing experience for me, and one that'll likely keep him off my book shelves for good.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Early snow chaos

Having had the worst snow in all my time in Southampton earlier this year, I thought that this was likely a one-off I'd not see the likes of for many more years. That didn't work out so good. After having smothered the rest of the country for much of the week, snow finally came to Woolston early Thursday morning, and we woke to an impressive 15 cm of ground cover. It stuck around all of Thursday, a lot of Friday, and is still here now, though very much on its last legs.

Needless to say, the standard traffic chaos came with the snow, and it was certainly a much quieter walk into work on Thursday (I didn't even dare cycle). In an unprecedented step for NOC, we even got turfed out of work early (verified by security) to take advantage of the fading sunlight and get home safely. That was a little over the top, but probably not a bad idea. Anyhow, to avoid a long hike in (made longer by my penchant for photographing every damn thing), I worked from home on Friday - and actually made more of this than usual by trying to squeeze out a grant proposal (of which more later). Today, warmer temperatures and a lot of rain is taking care of what snow didn't melt away yesterday. So, things are safer, but a lot more miserable.




More photographs over here.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Crazy Heart

It's not uncommon for a terrible film to be heralded by a great trailer. Phantom Menace is, I think, king in this department, with a trailer that presents a fantastic rush of images and swells with evocative music, but which is transmogrified into a full-length morass that's simultaneously (and paradoxically) ponderous and all action-without-meaning at the same time.

This evening's DVD, Crazy Heart, achieved something a little similar but with an interesting difference: in a patchwork of just a few minutes, its trailer, which we caught a number of times at the cinema (hence this rental), presented the distilled essence of a story that the film, which contains all the same material and more, couldn't. The film looks great, is played well by its leads, and has the right scenes, but it somehow mangles them, such that the narrative fall-and-rise that's played out masterfully in the trailer, zigzags around, is repeatedly miscued and doesn't make for anything approaching a coherent emotional arc.

It's annoying because, while Phantom Menace really was an empty spectacle with a trailer that was pure salesperson's pitch, Crazy Heart, as both the trailer and film illustrate, had all the right ingredients for success. There was always the risk of disappearing into clichéd, self-destructive-musician tropes, but I think employing a narrative-blind editor was where the wheels really fell off. It's not a good day when the hatchet man from marketing brought into make the trailer has a better grip on the story than the film-makers.