Friday, September 19, 2014

Under the Skin (film)

We just watched the DVD of "Under the Skin" featuring Scarlett Johansson as Isserley, the alien which predates Scottish hitchhikers. (I struggle with a link to yesterday's referendum.)

Scarlett Johansson as 'the alien'

Michel Faber's book is really excellent, expertly charting Isserley's psychological transition from resentful corporate hunter-gatherer to terminally-rebellious renegade. The film (apparently due to lack of funds) dispenses with the meat-processing backroom cast and the posh-boy from corporate HQ, replacing plot and setting with dreamy Scottish imagery and Ms Johansson.

The Director and Producer wanted this to come across as art-house, but cinematic staging can't substitute for plot, motive, dialogue and character development. I won't say we wasted 104 minutes of our lives, but the longueurs were exasperating and the overall treatment just didn't work.

Read the book instead.

Be as stupid as possible

"All animals are under stringent selection pressure to be as stupid as they can get away with." (Echopraxia, p. 23).

Obviously - intelligence costs.

Echopraxia (and prequel Blindsight)  present ordinary, baseline humans dealing with entities far smarter than they are. It's a hard call for the author: are his super-intelligent beings smarter than the author himself, his readers? How then can they possibly be imagined?

Try another question first. What possible utility could super-intelligence have in evolutionary terms? After all houseflies, not known as paragons of smartness, seem to have had no problem colonising the planet. The answer has been known for a long time: in a predictable environment (aka ecological niche) the organism can get away with hard-wired reflexes - instincts - and that's the way to go. Intelligence is the way animals deal with problem-solving in variable, somewhat unpredictable environments, often when they are social creatures and have to compete with equally-complex and hard-to-fathom conspecifics.

Still, we are where we are and there's not much sign of super-intelligence in the myriad species inhabiting this globe. So what are the fictional super-smarts actually doing?

In Blindsight/Echopraxia they are capable of maintaining and manipulating multiple highly-abstract models applied to extrapolating from the current situation. They understand what they perceive at a much deeper level and can predict and direct consequences far better than we can. This assumes of course that these deep levels of abstraction are actually relevant: a quantum physicist understand the dynamics of the world far more profoundly than any lay person but in everyday life it makes no difference - and even gets in the way.

To be super-intelligent in a way which pays off you have to be in a situation where complex phenomena are directly causally present, and you must possess super-senses and super-tools to act effectively on your superior understanding. In Echopraxia for example, most of the super-smarts are able to perceive and affect human brain states directly, and manipulate effective theories of human brain functioning in real-time. No wonder they run rings round us. They have a similar relationship to advanced technologies, which makes them pretty effective in dealing with power and transportation platforms and weapon systems - always useful in an SF novel!

The moral is that being as stupid as possible (but not stupider) is the right answer - but the ratchet of that minimal level keeps cranking up, as science and technology complexify our environment.

So how does Peter Watts convey to us, his readers, the super-intelligence of his protagonists? By making his stories intricate puzzles where we're never quite sure who's doing what to whom, and why. After the novel is finished, you reflect, try to make some sense out of the hints, the apparently purposeless or perverse actions. And then it starts to come together: being slow-witted is sometimes homologous to cranking down the clock speed of the very smart.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

No, NO, NO! Yes, YES, YES!

They both wanted a ‘Yes’ vote. She was a Celtic romantic, starry-eyed for the noble Caledonians, advancing to their own drumbeat, building their own future. He was a cool realist, anticipating Schadenfreude as the Scots finally ran into the car-crash of their statist-socialist utopia.

They snuck downstairs at 4 am, holding hands on the couch to watch the BBC. More in hope than expectation it has to be said: they had seen the final polls. Results dribbled in: the Highlanders, more distrustful of Edinburgh than of London, were plumping for ‘No’; as dawn approached, the socialist masses huddled in the tenements of Glasgow were redressing the balance towards ‘Yes’.

Alas, it was not to be: a fifth column of public sector jobs and MOD contracts had sucked the vitals of Nationalist support. The disastrous result began to assemble itself on screen.

First light caressed the blinds. “Make the Saltire,” he commanded, pressing her onto the couch. Their act of union formed, grew, overwhelmed her. She barely heard the announcer, reviewing final returns from the Highlands, the Centre and the Scottish Borders:  “It looks like ‘No, No, No’.”

Her only possible response ... her cry rang out:

“Yes, YES, YES!”

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Tree alert! Incursion detected!

How do I look?

I would say the tree has no chance ..

"Biological" science-fiction

I spent the morning learning about mitosis, meiosis and recombination from YouTube: absorbing the differences between chromatids and chromatin, and figuring out tetrads.

I have a longer-term mission to get my head around genetics, and specifically population genetics, not least to interpret my own genome in its historical context, as these things gradually unveil. However, a proximate driver was reading Echopraxia by Peter Watts.

I was rather taken by the first installment of Watts' alien-contact saga, Blindsight. We're familiar with the exciting extrapolations of the physics/engineering-oriented community: Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein through Greg Bear (Eon, Eternity) and Greg Egan (Quarantine, etc etc); quantum mechanics, relativity, cosmology interlaced with artificial intelligence. But Peter Watts is a biologist and his extrapolation-settings include resurrection of extinct species, brain-re-engineering via retroviruses, biohacked-plagues, genetic enhancement and machine-human hybrids.

I'm quite excited by this future!

Watts has a short linking text - almost a story - to get us to Echopraxia, which was good. So far I'm about half way through the novel .. but disappointment is fluttering just under my consciousness. It's like Watts assembled all the components (he particularly likes super-intelligent Hive Minds) but somehow the engine is misfiring. All that authorial-energy searching for a plot worthy of it!

That's it for now; let me read on - it may all come together.

Update: Finished. Rating upgraded as I get it now. Not a 'there and back again' chase saga as I first surmised, rather an exploration of transcendence and evolutionary replacement of us baseline humans. Wow!

I'd star it (**, ****). Two stars if you're not interested in Watts's preoccupations (intelligence, consciousness, the future of both in the universe); four stars if, like me, you are.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Can martial artists actually fight?

Tricia Sullivan - SF author and fighter

Tricia Sullivan thinks not.
"Most people think of martial arts and fighting as being more or less synonymous. I see them as a Venn diagram of two sets that overlap by a tiny margin. This is because most martial artists don't fight and their training isn't directly based on what happens in a fight.

There are reasons for this. The problem of training for a fight is a tricky one. If an instructor puts students in an actual fight (as opposed to highly controlled drills with restricted moves), they might get seriously hurt. But if instructors can't create an accurate representation of a fight in the gym, trainees will never really be tested. To make up for the lack of fighting, martial arts typically focus on displays of fake combat that illustrate the combative moves that have been passed down through history. They may have non-contact or light contact fighting, but this only tests your ability to touch the other person with the techniques you have been taught--not your ability to hurt them for real much less take a beating yourself.

Most people who study martial arts study a system. Whether the system is historical (like kung fu and karate) or modern (like Systema and Krav Maga) the techniques are taught formally, with ranks, with semi-compliant drilling between members of the same school, and with a heavy dose of hierarchy that keeps everybody in their place. With a few exceptions (Gracie Barra jiu-jitsu is one system that grades predominantly through hard competition) the idea of all-out fighting is a theoretical one, kept well in the background.

But fighting is chaotic. It's often unpredictable. It doesn't systemize well and it's difficult to pass on as a body of knowledge. What people don't realize is that no matter how effective the founder of a discipline may have been in his (or in the case of Wing Chun, her) day, unless the practices of that system involve rigorous testing in realistic fighting conditions against non-compliant opponents from outside your system, you can never really know whether you can make their moves work for you.

..."      (continue reading)
The many comments are pretty insightful too.

Tricia is a prolific science-fiction writer as well as martial artist, the reason she's writing this post on Charles Stross's blog. I haven't read any of her stuff and I guess her reviews are mixed although her novel "Dreaming in Smoke" won the 1999 Arthur C. Clarke award.

She has follow-up posts here and here.

Sadly for those who devote their lives to the perfection of Karate, Aikido or Taekwondo, skilled practitioners often come off very badly in fights with drunken idiots. Despite lack of formal training, being large, aggressive and fearless takes you a long way in a fight as does the use of improvised weapons such as bottles, drinking glasses and ash-trays. The sensei complains that his or her victorious opponent wasn't following the rules.

Tricia has most time for Judo and Wrestling - at least you really get to grapple with opponents - but even MMA has to outlaw those injurious or  lethal moves which are decisive in real fights.

One of the videos Tricia embedded in her second post was this one, of a real street fight in Turkey where a gang set upon a guy who happens to be a boxer ...

... looks like boxing really works.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Tech Support

We were in Stroud yesterday advising my first cousin once removed's (my mother's cousin's) husband on how to get on-net. I arrived loaded with large laptop, tablet, router, Kindle plus assorted extension cables and power bars - two bags worth of tech support. In the event Derrick was most impressed with my Galaxy S3 smartphone; Wendy has the most wonderful gardens front and rear of their house.

Here's a nice pic from when we were in the states back in 2002.

Alex and Clare at our house in Fairfax County, VA.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The vampire in serious science-fiction: Peter Watts

I think Adrian was with me when I explained that the story started with 65,536 iron meteors simultaneously hitting the atmosphere in grid alignment: a kind of global flashbulb. The plot-line is alien first-contact, although that hardly does "Blindsight" justice. It was when I mentioned that the leader of the expedition is a vampire that I lost him.

Peter Watts was (is?) a researcher, a frighteningly-erudite marine biologist, so these are not your stereotypical vampires of teen-fiction:
"Homo sapiens vampiris was a short-lived human subspecies which diverged from the ancestral line between 800,000 and 500,000 year BP. More gracile than either neandertal or sapiens, gross physical divergence from sapiens included slight elongation of canines, mandibles, and long bones in service of an increasingly predatory lifestyle. Due to the relatively brief lifespan of this lineage, these changes were not extensive and overlapped considerably with conspecific allometries; differences become diagnostically significant only at large sample sizes (N>130).

However, while virtually identical to modern humans in terms of gross physical morphology, vampiris was radically divergent from sapiens on the biochemical, neurological, and soft-tissue levels. The GI tract was foreshortened and secreted a distinct range of enzymes more suited to a carnivorous diet. Since cannibalism carries with it a high risk of prionic infection, the vampire immune system displayed great resistance to prion diseases, as well as to a variety of helminth and anasakid parasites.

Vampiris hearing and vision were superior to that of sapiens; vampire retinas were quadro-chromatic (containing four types of cones, compared to only three among baseline humans); the fourth cone type, common to nocturnal predators ranging from cats to snakes, was tuned to near-infrared. Vampire grey matter was "under-connected" compared to human norms due to a relative lack of interstitial white matter; this forced isolated cortical modules to become self-contained and hypereffective, leading to omni-savantic pattern-matching and analytical skills.

Virtually all of these adaptations are cascade effects that— while resulting from a variety of proximate causes— can ultimately be traced back to a paracentric inversion mutation on the Xq21.3 block of the X-chromosome. This resulted in functional changes to genes coding for protocadherins (proteins that play a critical role in brain and central nervous system development). While this provoked radical neurological and behavioral changes, significant physical changes were limited to soft tissue and microstructures that do not fossilise. This, coupled with extremely low numbers of vampire even at peak population levels (existing as they did at the tip of the trophic pyramid) explains their virtual absence from the fossil record.

Significant deleterious effects also resulted from this cascade. For example, vampires lost the ability to code for -Protocadherin Y, whose genes are found exclusively on the hominid Y chromosome. Unable to synthesise this vital protein themselves, vampires had to obtain it from their food. Human prey thus comprised an essential component of their diet, but a relatively slow-breeding one (a unique situation, since prey usually outproduce their predators by at least an order of magnitude). Normally this dynamic would be utterly unsustainable: vampires would predate humans to extinction, and then die off themselves for lack of essential nutrients.

Extended periods of lungfish-like dormancy (the so-called "undead" state)—and the consequent drastic reduction in vampire energetic needs— developed as a means of redressing this imbalance. To this end vampires produced elevated levels of endogenous Ala-(D) Leuenkephalin (a mammalian hibernation-inducing peptide) and dobutamine, which strengthens the heart muscle during periods on inactivity.

Another deleterious cascade effect was the so-called "Crucifix Glitch"— a cross-wiring of normally-distinct receptor arrays in the visual cortex, resulting in grand mal-like feedback seizures whenever the arrays processing vertical and horizontal stimuli fired simultaneously across a sufficiently large arc of the visual field. Since intersecting right angles are virtually nonexistent in nature, natural selection did not weed out the Glitch until H. sapiens sapiens developed Euclidean architecture; by then, the trait had become fixed across H. sapiens vampiris via genetic drift, and—suddenly denied access to its prey—the entire subspecies went extinct shortly after the dawn of recorded history."
Why does Watts need a highly-intelligent, empathy-free sociopath as a central character? Because his book is an extended examination of consciousness: what is it, what is it good for (or not) and how sure are we that it even widely exists? His alien protagonists are also not overly-burdened with consciousness but it doesn't seem to slow them down any. And bringing back your species' top predator - even on a leash - might not be the smartest option.

Watts' authorial persona is super-smart aggressive: he writes like Richard Morgan (Takeshi Kovacs) or Greg Cochran (the non-fictional West Hunter). The aggression seems to reflect the real-life person - a criminal record locks him out of the USA.

The case for the prosecution in "Blindsight" doesn't really work, as I think the author concedes. But what a case! You will understand the sheer depth and ingenuity of his thinking when you truly understand this passage.
"Now you get it," Sascha said.

I shook my head, trying to wrap it around that insane, impossible conclusion. "They're not even hostile." Not even capable of hostility. Just so profoundly alien that they couldn't help but treat human language itself as a form of combat.

How do you say We come in peace when the very words are an act of war?

"That's why they won't talk to us," I realized.
"Blindsight" is available for free on the author's website but as he has to eat, it might be better to buy it and the popular sequel Echopraxia on Amazon. Or both together, bound for Kindle as Firefall.

Tour of Britain - Bristol

We were at the Downs, Bristol today to watch the finish of this stage of the Tour of Britain.

Leading riders finishing --- exhausted

The author relaxing at coffee

A fan bangs those blow-up things

The Team Sky Bus awaits Bradley et al.

They're coming when you see the helicopter ..

The Peloton struggles along the Portway

The pros are just soooo fast!

Monday, September 08, 2014

Beheading as strategy and history

Perseus with the beheaded Medusa

A little overlong as always, War Nerd writes an essay about beheading, putting it into some kind of context.
"Well, here we are: Another American journalist beheaded by the Islamic State (IS). First it was James Foley, a wild-child freelancer, who was shown kneeling on the sand in an orange jumpsuit—a little visual revenge on Guantanamo dress code—while a Brit jihadi scolded America for daring to interfere with the Islamic State’s blitzkrieg-lite campaign to overrun Northern Iraq.

Foley’s beheading video was released on August 19, 2014. Two weeks later, IS killed a second American hostage, Steven Sotloff, using the same jihadi mise-en-scene: Sotloff in an orange jumpsuit, kneeling in the sand, while the same London-raised war tourist stands next to him with a short combat knife, gesturing with the blade while complaining again about the sheer unfairness of airstrikes taking out IS comrades.

..."    (continue reading).


We're off to collect blackberrys now (the fruit, that is).

Saturday, September 06, 2014

The Personal Genome Project

The Economist this week (in Technology Quarterly) covered - in a profile of Harvard's Prof. George Church - the global Personal Genome Project. Here is what Wikipedia has to say.
"The Personal Genome Project (PGP) is a long term, large cohort study which aims to sequence and publicize the complete genomes and medical records of 100,000 volunteers, in order to enable research into personal genomics and personalized medicine. It was initiated by Harvard University's George M. Church and announced in 2005. As of August 1, 2014, more than 3,500 volunteers have joined the project. Volunteers are currently accepted if they are permanent residents of the US, Canada or the UK, and are able to submit tissue and/or genetic samples. The Project is planned to launch for Europe and in development for South America and Asia.

The project will publish the genotype (the full DNA sequence of all 46 chromosomes) of the volunteers, along with extensive information about their phenotype: medical records, various measurements, MRI images, etc. All data will be placed within the public domain and made available over the Internet so that researchers can test various hypotheses about the relationships among genotype, environment and phenotype.

An important part of the project will be the exploration of the resulting risks to the participants, such as possible discrimination by insurers and employers if the genome shows a predisposition for certain diseases.

The Harvard Medical School Institutional Review Board requested that the first set of volunteers include the principal investigator George Church and other diverse stakeholders in the scientific, medical, and social implications of personal genomes, because they are well positioned to give highly informed consent. As sequencing technology becomes cheaper, and the societal issues mentioned above are worked out, it is hoped that a large number of volunteers from all walks of life will participate. The long-term goal is that every person have access to his or her genotype to be used for personalized medical decisions.

The first ten volunteers are referred to as the "PGP-10". These volunteers are:

Misha Angrist, Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy
Keith Batchelder, Genomic Healthcare Strategies
George M. Church, Harvard
Esther Dyson, EDventure Holdings
Rosalynn Gill-Garrison, Sciona
John Halamka, Harvard Medical School
Stan Lapidus, Helicos BioSciences
Kirk Maxey, Cayman Chemical
James Sherley, Boston stem cell researcher.
Steven Pinker, Harvard

In order to enroll each participant must pass a series of short online tests to ensure that they are providing informed consent. By the end of 2012, more than 2000 participants had enrolled in the Harvard PGP. As of August 1, 2014, more than 3,500 volunteers have joined the project."
I'm naturally very keen to get my entire genome sequenced and interpreted, and relaxed about the privacy issues. The PGP disclaimer document you have to sign is pretty lurid - here are some of the dangers you're warned against.
"(ii) Anyone with sufficient knowledge and resources could take your DNA sequence data and/or posted trait information and use that data, with or without changes, to:

(A) accurately or inaccurately reveal to you or a member of your family the possibility of a disease or other trait or propensity for a disease or other trait;

(B) claim statistical evidence, including with respect to your genetic predisposition to certain diseases or other traits, that could affect the ability of you and/or your family to obtain or maintain employment, insurance or financial services;

(C) claim relatedness to criminals or other notorious figures or groups on the part of you and/or your family;

(D) correctly or incorrectly associate you and/or your relatives with ongoing or unsolved criminal investigations on the basis of your publicly available genetic data; or

(E) make synthetic DNA and plant it at a crime scene, or otherwise use it to falsely identify or implicate you and/or your family."
and, a little later,
"More nefarious uses are also possible, if unlikely. DNA is commonly used to identify individuals in criminal investigations. Someone could plant samples of DNA, created from genome data or cell lines, to falsely implicate you in a crime. It’s currently science fiction -- but it’s possible that someone could use your DNA or cells for in vitro fertilization to create children without your knowledge or permission, or to create human clones."
In any event, my attempts to sign up were met with this response.

"Dear PGP-UK Volunteer,

The response to our recent request for enrolment has been fantastic and the first available 1,000 slots have now all been assigned. To help us establish a smooth running of the entire process, we have temporarily paused the enrolment to focus our limited resources on the first 1000 volunteers.

We will open the enrolment again as soon as we can. In the meantime, you can follow our progress on the PGP-UK web site ( and social media ( of the international PGP Community.

Thank you for your patience and continued support,

PGP-UK Team"
So I'll just have to wait my turn. Watch this space.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Weston super Mare

A visit yesterday to the Somerset Riviera ,,

Beryl Seel - we're to the right of the pier (at the paddling pool)

Clare fronting Steep Holm in the mist

The author in Weston's watery sunlight

For the briefest of moments we thought the promised 'nice day' was at hand; then the clouds reformed and a mist descended. We ate our picnic to a strutting, mewling audience of gulls on the concrete ledge and did not donate (recalling 'The Birds').

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Barrington Court (NT)

We were at Barrington Court this last day of August under an autumnal sun, summer already forgotten.

The sun's come back in a semi-serious way

The author, not about to announce a new Apple product

Scary denizens of the Rose Garden pool

She's all pom-pomed out ...

Barrington Court in its fuzzy glory