Heliophage


Robots, robots everywhere
March 28, 2014, 10:39 am
Filed under: Published stuff

So the long project on robots I have been working on for a while has now come to fruition. The special report in the Economist, called Immigrants from the Future, starts here with an overview that uses colour from Darpa Robotics Challenge.

Then there are six further sections, one on why the field is hotting up (Good and ready), one on drones (Up in the air), one on service robots that may achieve a lot without getting noticed (The invisible unarmed), one on jobs (A mighty contest), one on care for the elderly (Seal of approval, which has my favourite pic) and a wrap-up, That thou art mindful of him.

There is also an editorial (which is probably most notable for putting a Stranglers song title on to the cover) and, god help us, a video. An off-cut about autism will shortly appear as my next Music of Science column in Intelligent Life. I may stick up an afterthought or two on this site next week,  but don’t have time to post them now, because I am taking a break.

For all that, I am insanely aware of how much this doesn’t cover — stuff that I learned about with fascination and couldn’t imagine not putting in, but in the end, didn’t. I’ve rarely so strongly had the feeling of paragraphs, even single sentences, that could swell up into decent articles in their own right if allowed to.

Lots of thanks to the many many people I talked to (including those whose work did not, alas, get a look in, see apve), and to the great colleagues who helped make the report a thing, rather than just something I waved my hands about, most notably the editor, Barbara Beck, the researcher, David McKelvey, Una Corrigan in art and Lloyd Parker and Phil Kenny in graphics. Also Patsy Dryden, who kept the travel schedule on the road.

No robots were harmed in the making of these articles



Oscars 2013
March 2, 2014, 9:46 pm
Filed under: film

What I think will win and should win — and a few random comments. It was, as has been widely noted, a very good year. I remember in 2005 being pretty nonplussed, after the awards, by Million Dolllar Baby, thinking that it was pretty good, but that Hollywood should be able to produce  ten or so films that good in a year, and a few a good bit better. Last year was the sort of thing I had in mind

Best original screenplay: Will win – American Hustle, because people like the film a lot, and the screenplay, while baggy, is part of the reason. Should win — Her, because it is  remarkable and fresh.

Best adapted screenplay: 12 Years a Slave should and will win. Its use of voice and idiolect is remarkable.

Best cinematography: Gravity should and will win. I’m really interested by the debate about whether CGI is changing what best cinematography can or should mean,  whether the category should be split and so on. This will, after all, be the fifth year in a row the award has gone to something very heavy on the CGI (previously: Avatar, Inception, Hugo, Life of Pi: short titles seem to rule) and that’s not the only way of achieving true excellence in cinematography. But this is such a starting achievement, by a cinematographer that everyone already knows is terrific, that for this evening let’s put all that aside.

Best editing: Genuinely hard. The experts at In Contention seem pretty sure that it will be Captain Phillips, and it did win at the ACE awards. To my ignorant outsider eyes  that seems a bit of a stretch for a film people did not like enough to get Paul Greengrass or Tom Hanks (who was amazing) nominated. So I’m going to say Gravity both should and will win. But I’m probably wrong on the second.

Best score and best song: Steven Price Should and will win for Gravity, a terrific piece of work.  I continue to think that it is truly weird that Hans Zimmer didn’t get nominated for 12 Years, but there we go. Let it Go will win and should win best song (maybe if I’d seen Happy in context I’d feel different – but hey, it’s a belting well-built show tune with a good message and fractals too)

Continue reading



Music of Science: Suspiciously similar
March 2, 2014, 6:19 pm
Filed under: Published stuff

My new Intelligent Life column is about the origins of the moon, and more generally about how science makes the dissimilar similar, and the unearthly earthly.

By the time people actually got to the moon it was known to be deeply dissimilar to the Earth, a dead, drab, alien counterpart to our planet’s richness.

Science, though, thrives on finding similarities between apparently disparate things. A dolphin looks like a sharkbut as a mammal and a social hunter it is more like a wolf. The coasts of Uruguay and Namibia appear quite differentbut the rocks of which they are made are identical, laid down together in the same ancient sea before the opening of the South Atlantic pulled them apart. Perhaps most famously, the fall of an apple in a Lincolnshire garden, and the monthly swing of the Moon around the Earth, are manifestations of the same gravitational attraction. And in the 1970s, chemical analysis of Moon rocks showed that though the Moon looked nothing like the Earth, its crust was made of the same mixture of elements, in strikingly similar proportions.

Whole thing here

The full Music of Science back-catalogue can be found here.



Against American Hustle, in favour of Tim’s Vermeer
January 22, 2014, 11:29 pm
Filed under: Artworks, film

A couple of film posts from me over at The Economist’s blogs.

One was on the Oscar nominations, to go with a very nice graphic by my colleagues Guy and Lloyd. While it is kinder than people close to me have been about American Hustle (or “that piece of shit”, as it is known in Orpington), it concludes that:

“Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” are both, in their ways, landmarks of film. “Gravity” is a tour de force that uses a well-executed B-movie peril-in-space plot to provide a transcendent visual and aural evocation of the vast, the empty and the intimate. “12 Years”, which if it wins Best Picture will be the first film by a black director to do so, navigates the landscapes of slavery with a poise that does nothing to diminish the horror of its story, or the audience’s empathy – indeed its consummate artistry magnifies them. For both of those films to lose to yet another likeable, comfortable story about the American government running con games in the 1970s — also the subject matter of last year’s winner, “Argo” — would be a travesty.

Whole thing here

Second was on Tim’s Vermeer, a really wonderful film by Teller. For me, the key sentence in the piece is  “‘Tim’s Vermeer’ is a film that those who see it will think about a lot over the years”. Which is to say that I’m not sure I have quite got the levels of revelations within revelations and reflections on reflections quite right in this first take. Ask me again in a few years time.

It begins:

“SUNDAY in the Park with George”, by Stephen Sondheim, is a work of art about a work of art which takes place, in part, within a work of art. The life, or at least a life, of the painter Georges Seurat is imagined running through, around and past his magnificent “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. The musical is said to have a particular importance to Teller, an American stage magician. Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat”—in which a paean to the sublime rewards of creation triumphs, just, over an accounting of its costs—can reportedly move him to tears.

So it is hardly remarkable that Teller’s first film as a director is also about a work of art and its creation, seen from the inside. But that is one of the few things about “Tim’s Vermeer”, which opened in Britain this week, that is not remarkable. Simultaneously charming and challenging, it asks its viewers at the same time to celebrate art—in fact, on that front it does not merely ask, it demands—and to question it. [read the whole thing]

And whether I quite got it right or not, Teller liked the piece, which makes me happy.



Music of Science: Thoughts on a fire
December 13, 2013, 3:14 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

My new vaguely seasonal Intelligent Life column is now online:

Because my father was born at Christmas time, his parents named him Noel. But that was not the name by which they came to know him. As a baby he would stare, rapt, into the fire in the grate of their house in a Welsh mining valley, off in a world of his own. His mother took to calling him “Joseph the dreamer”, and from then on his family always called him Joe.

A love of looking into a hearth is something I have inherited from him. As I write this in my own sitting room, a log is crackling on a bed of slower-burning coals in a fireplace not dissimilar to the one my dad grew up with. The house would be warm without it, but I find it one of the more enjoyable duties of winter, once a week or so, to walk up the road to the filling station, load a battered old rucksack with solid fuel, and lug it back home. It makes the northern hemisphere’s turning away from the sun a bit more palatable. And, in a simple, reassuringly domestic way, it celebrates what makes the planet quite so special.

Read on

And here’s the curated set of Music of Science columns



Music of Science: on lasers
November 23, 2013, 11:27 am
Filed under: Published stuff

A new Music of Science column is up at Intelligent Life. In view of the column’s  title, I thought of starting it with that great riddle,

“‘Why is a laser beam like a goldfish?’

“‘Because neither of them can whistle'”

– but that seemed like too much work and too obscure a reference. So I started it like this:

It feels a bit like something that might have been issued by Q branch. In fact, it’s on sale at Boots the chemist. When you press a little gold button on the back, a prismatic pseudopod slides up behind the blades. From its top shines a tiny red eye of the sort you might have seen in “The Lord of the Rings” had it dealt with malevolent fruit flies rather than disembodied demigods. A perfect red line is projected across my cheekbone. My laser-guided beard trimmer is ready.

I notice that this is the second of these columns to have a Bond-based opener: coincidence, obviously, but if it happens again we’ll have to assume enemy action…

The rest of the Music of Science columns, with some annotations and second thoughts (including all the things other than goldfish that I left out of this one, like Paul Simon and sea bass) are available here.



Head count
October 20, 2013, 10:21 am
Filed under: Books, Media

Elizabeth Kolbert has an interesting book review on population, with a nitrogen lede, at The New Yorker. It mentions in passing an assessment that nitrogen fixation added two years to the length of the first world war. I’ve heard similar broad claims but would be interested in more detailed analysis; perhaps some is provided or referenced in Alan Weisman’s “Countdown” (Amazon UK|US), one of the books under review.

The review’s a  run through some current anti-natalism and pro-natalism books. The context is the twentieth-century population growth allowed by Haber-Bosch nitrogen fixation and its continuation, abatement or reversal, and the fight between malthusians and cornucopians, though she doesn’t really pick a side on that. She acknowledges that malthusianism ahas so far been wrong, but not that it has to be.

Weisman is the anti-natalist, and fits my general stereotyping by being a man in his sixties (rule of thumb: when in an environmental conversation that has previously not been about population someone declares that the fundamental problem is population, but no one wants to talk about it, that someone will be an older man). Apparently he thinks that about 2 billion might be a “natural” population level and that this century will determine an “optimal” level for population (which from the context might be the level supportable after a large scale die off). It sounds as though I should probably look at this book, though I doubt I am going to enjoy it.

A little nit-picking. For those of us with an interest in photosynthesis (and if you don’t have such an interest, I have a book to recommend a book to you….) the idea that, thanks to Haber-Bosch. you and I “are eating bread made of air, and so, in a sense, are made of air as well,” draws a smile. Where does she think the rest of the bread comes from, if not from the air? I also think it’s a trifle unfair to give the impression that William Crookes was a straightforward malthusian when he specifically noted that chemical technology could and should solve the crisis of fertiliser supply that he saw coming. And while it’s her call to quote E O Wilson calling human population growth as “more bacterial than primate” (a quote she’s used before) equating humans with pestilence in that way always sets my teeth on edge.

I also note that Jonathan Last, author of “What to expect when no-one’s expecting” (Amazon UK|US) has some issues with the way the review treats his arguments.

Update: In a curious anti-natalist synchronicity, “Don’t have any more Mrs Moore” came on the radio just as I posted this… (Courtesy of Jeremy Hutchinson on Desert Island Discs)




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