Tags: science



Machine supplying

I wrote a little something recently about some inspiring projects that people are working on. Like Matt’s Machine Supply project. There’s a physical side to that project—a tweeting book-vending machine in London—but there’s also the newsletter, 3 Books Weekly.

I was honoured to be asked by Matt to contribute three book recommendations. That newsletter went out last week. Here’s what I said…

The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage

A book about the history of telegraphy might not sound like the most riveting read, but The Victorian Internet is both fascinating and entertaining. Techno-utopianism, moral panic, entirely new ways of working, and a world that has been utterly transformed: the parallels between the telegraph and the internet are laid bare. In fact, this book made me realise that while the internet has been a great accelerator, the telegraph was one of the few instances where a technology could truly be described as “disruptive.”

Ancillary Justice: 1 (Imperial Radch) by Ann Leckie

After I finished reading the final Iain M. Banks novel I was craving more galaxy-spanning space opera. The premise of Ancillary Justice with its description of “ship minds” led me to believe that this could be picking up the baton from the Culture series. It isn’t. This is an entirely different civilisation, one where song-collecting and tea ceremonies have as much value as weapons and spacecraft. Ancillary Justice probes at the deepest questions of identity, both cultural and personal. As well as being beautifully written, it’s also a rollicking good revenge thriller.

The City & The City by China Miéville

China Miéville’s books are hit-and-miss for me, but this one is a direct hit. The central premise of this noir-ish tale defies easy description, so I won’t even try. In fact, one of the great pleasures of this book is to feel the way your mind is subtly contorted by the author to accept a conceit that should be completely unacceptable. Usually when a book is described as “mind-altering” it’s a way of saying it has drug-like properties, but The City & The City is mind-altering in an entirely different and wholly unique way. If Borges and Calvino teamed up to find The Maltese Falcon, the result would be something like this.

When I sent off my recommendations, I told Matt:

Oh man, it was so hard to narrow this down! So many books I wanted to mention: Station 11, The Peripheral, The Gone-Away World, Glasshouse, Foucault’s Pendulum, Oryx and Crake, The Wind-up Girl …this was so much tougher than I thought it was going to be.

And Matt said:

Tell you what — if you’d be up for writing recommendations for another 3 books, from those ones you mentioned, I’d love to feature those in the machine!


Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven made think about the purpose of art and culture. If art, as Brian Eno describes it, is “everything that you don’t have to do”, what happens to art when the civilisational chips are down? There are plenty of post-pandemic stories of societal collapse. But there’s something about this one that sets it apart. It doesn’t assume that humanity will inevitably revert to an existence that is nasty, brutish and short. It’s also a beautifully-written book. The opening chapter completely sucker-punched me.

Glasshouse by Charles Stross

On the face of it, this appears to be another post-Singularity romp in a post-scarcity society. It is, but it’s also a damning critique of gamification. Imagine the Stanford prison experiment if it were run by godlike experimenters. Stross’s Accelerando remains the definitive description of an unfolding Singularity, but Glasshouse is the one that has stayed with me.

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

This isn’t an easy book to describe, but it’s a very easy book to enjoy. A delightful tale of a terrifying apocalypse, The Gone-Away World has plenty of laughs to balance out the existential dread. Try not to fall in love with the charming childhood world of the narrator—you know it can’t last. But we’ll always have mimes and ninjas.

I must admit, it’s a really lovely feeling to get notified on Twitter when someone buys one of the recommended books.

The voice of MOL

The latest issue of Spaceflight—the magazine of the British Interplanetary Society—dropped through my door, adding to my weekend reading list. This issue contains a “whatever happened to” article about the military personnel who were supposed to crew the never-realised MOL project.

Before Salyut, Skylab, Mir, or the ISS, the Manned Orbital Laboratory was the first proposed space station. It would use a Gemini capsule and a Titan propellant tank.

Manned Orbital Laboratory

But this wasn’t to be a scientific endeavour. The plan was to use the MOL as a crewed spy satellite—human eyes in the sky watching the enemy below.

The MOL was cancelled (because uncrewed satellites were getting better at that sort of thing), so that particular orbital panopticon never came to pass.

I remember when I first heard of the MOL and I was looking it up on Wikipedia, that this little nugget of information stood out to me:

The MOL was planned to use a helium-oxygen atmosphere.

That’s right: instead of air (21% oxygen, 79% nitrogen), the spies in the sky would be breathing heliox (21% oxygen, 79% helium). Considering the effect that helium has on the human voice, I can only imagine that the grave nature of the mission would have been somewhat compromised.

The Force Awakens

You can listen to an audio version of The Force Awakens.

I’d like to talk about The Force Awakens (I mean, really, how can I not?) so there will be inevitable spoilers. Bail now if you haven’t seen the film.

Star Wars was a big part of my childhood. By extension—and because I’ve never really grown up—Star Wars has always been part of my identity, at least in the shallow sense of what I’d list under “hobbies and interests” on a theoretical form. Still, I could relate to Michael’s feelings in the run-up to the new film’s release:

Despite much evidence to the contrary, I don’t hang too many of my wants and needs on Star Wars or its continuing life as a franchise. I’m the fan-equivalent of a deep history archeologist, not a pundit or an evangelist.

While I’ve always been a big fan of Star Wars: The Films, I’ve never cared much about Star Wars: The Franchise. When my local pub quiz for nerds—The Geekest Link—has a Star Wars night, I enter with a prayer of “please no ‘Expanded Universe’, please no ‘Expanded Universe’.”

When I heard that Lucasfilm had been sold to Disney, I was intrigued—this could get interesting! When I heard that J.J. Abrams would be directing Episode VII, I was pretty happy—I like his work, and he’s a safe pair of hands. But I didn’t want to get too excited. Partly that’s because I’ve been burnt before—although I’m something of a prequels apologist in comparison to the hatred they inspired in most people. Mostly though, it’s because I’m aware that when it comes to something that doesn’t yet exist—whether it’s a Star Wars film, a forthcoming album, or an upcoming project at work—the more hope you place on its shoulders, the more unlikely it is to be able to fulfil those over-inflated expectations.

But as The Force Awakens drew closer and closer, despite my best intentions, I couldn’t help but get excited. Jessica and I watched and re-watched the trailers. The day that tickets went on sale, the website for my cinema of choice crashed, so I picked up the phone and waited in a queue to secure seats for the minute-past-midnight first showing (if you know how much I dislike telephonic communication, you’ll appreciate how unusual that action was for me).

I began to literally count down the days. In the final week, Jessica and I re-watched the Star Wars films in Machete Order, which I can highly recommend. That culminated on the evening of December 16th with a gathering ‘round at Andy’s to eat some food, watch Return Of The Jedi, and then head to the cinema before midnight. By the time I was sitting in my seat surrounded by equally enthusiastic fans, I was positively aquiver with excitement.

When the fanfare blasted and the Star Wars logo appeared, I was grinning from ear to ear. Then I experienced something really wonderful: I had no idea what was going to happen next. Going into this film with no knowledge of plot details or twists was the best possible way to experience it.

I didn’t know what the words of the opening crawl would be. I didn’t know who any of the characters were. I didn’t know what anybody was going to say. I know that sounds like a weird thing to fixate on—after all, didn’t we get that with the prequel films too? Well, not really. Because they were all backstory, there were clearly-delineated constraints on what could and couldn’t happen in those films. But with these new films, anything is possible.

I really, really, really enjoyed watching The Force Awakens. But in order to truly evaluate the film on its own merits, I knew I’d have to see it again in more normal circumstances (and who am I kidding? I didn’t need much of an excuse to see it again).

I’ve seen it three times now. I loved it every time. If anything, the things that slightly bothered me on first seeing the film have diminished with subsequent viewings. It stands up to repeat watching, something that isn’t necessarily true of other J.J. Abrams films—I enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness when I first saw it, but with every time I see it again, it grows a little weaker.

As I said, there were things that slightly bothered me and I’ll get to those, but my overwhelming feelings about this film are very, very positive. I think the world-building is really good. I think the film itself is superbly crafted, as described in this excellent point-by-point analysis by Chris Dickinson. But above all, what I love the most about The Force Awakens are the characters.

Rey. What can I say? She is quite simply a wonderfully-written character brought to life by an astonishingly good performance. And of course I’m going to join in the chorus of people who are glad that we finally get a lead role for a woman in this galaxy. Granted, Star Wars: The Force Awakens isn’t exactly Mad Max: Fury Road, but still, how great is it that 2015 has given us both Rey and Furiousa?

(You know what it is? It’s a good start.)

Likewise with Finn: great character; great performance. Throw in Kylo Ren, Poe Dameron and even BB8 …I’m sold. I’m invested in their stories now. I want to know what happens next. I want to spend time with them.

But The Force Awakens wasn’t just about new heroes and villains. As audacious as it would be to start from an entirely clean slate, it also needed to tie in to the beloved original films. On the whole, I think this film did a good job of balancing the past and the future.

Paul came along to that midnight viewing; a ticket became available at the last minute. But he was prepared not to enjoy it, or even understand it, given that he’s never really watched Star Wars.

“Actually”, I said, “I’d be really interested to find out what you think of it.”

I’m too close to the source material; I can’t objectively judge whether the new film could stand on its own, as opposed to be being the latest episode in an existing saga.

As it turned out, Paul really enjoyed it. Sure, there was stuff he was aware he was missing out on, but interestingly, there was even more stuff that we were all missing out on: the script is filled with references to events that happened in the intervening decades between the old films and the new. I liked that a lot. It helped solidify this as being simultaneously a brand new chapter and also just one sliver of a larger ongoing narrative.

The Force Awakens is very much a bridging piece between the old and the new. The torch was passed on with dignity, and surprisingly, it was Harrison Ford’s Han Solo that made it a convincing handover.

I say “surprisingly” because remember, we had just watched Return Of The Jedi before The Force Awakens and it is so clear that Harrison Ford really didn’t want to be in that film. I know Han Solo is supposed to be somewhat sarcastic, but it was dialled up to 11 for Jedi, and I’m pretty sure it was a very, shall we say, “naturalistic” performance. But here he is over thirty years later, really breathing life into the character.

Through the stewardship of Harrison Ford, we were lovingly taken from the original films that we know so well into a new story. Han Solo picked up the audience like it was a child that had fallen asleep in the car, and he gently tucked us into our familiar childhood room where we can continue to dream. And then, with a tender brush of his hand across the cheek, he left us.

In many ways, Han Solo in The Force Awakens is Ben Kenobi in Star Wars …but with a much more fleshed-out history and a more interesting personal journey. Now he’s the one saying that the Force is real (and he does it in the very spot where he originally ridiculed Kenobi). It’s as if Scully were to slowly come around to Mulder’s worldview and finally intone “I want to believe.”

The biggest gripe that other people have with The Force Awakens is how much the plot resembles that of the original Star Wars. It’s undeniable. The question is how much that matters, and a result, how much it bothers you. It really bothered Khoi. It somewhat bothered Andy. It didn’t bother me much, but it was definitely an aspect that prevented the film from being a complete triumph. But it’s also one of those issues that diminishes with repeated viewing.

Those bothered by the echoes between Star Wars and The Force Awakens are going to be really pissed off when they find out about World War One and World War Two. “Britain and America fight Germany again? Really!?” (Probably best not to even mention any of the Gulf wars).

I get the feeling though that the people who are bothered by the plot are perhaps overplaying the similarities and underplaying the differences.

So yes, in one sense Rey in The Force Awakens is like Luke in Star Wars—a young person on a desert planet far from the action. But then there are the differences: where Luke was whining about his situation, Rey is mastering hers. And of course there’s the fact that he in 1977 is now she in 2015. “That doesn’t make any difference!” you may cry, and you’d be exactly right: it shouldn’t make any difference …so why has it taken us four decades to get to this?

The casting of Rey and Finn is simultaneously unimportant and monumental. It’s unimportant in that it makes no difference to the story whether Rey is a woman or Finn is black. It’s monumental in that they are the main characters in what everyone knew would be the biggest film of the century so far.

One of the other complaints that people have with The Force Awakens is the unclear political background. Here’s Michael again:

The rebels killed the Emperor and won, but now they’re ‘the resistance’? Why? They’re backed by the republic, so why aren’t they just the armed forces of the republic? The First Order strikes against the republic (looked like Coruscant, but apparently wasn’t). How big is the First Order? Big enough to build Starkiller Base, but what does that mean? Do they control systems? Do they have support inside the republic? Is this like a separatists thing? How long have they been around? How are they funded?

This certainly bugged me. It was the kind of issue that could have been fixed with one explanatory scene. Sure enough, it turns out that such a scene was shot but then cut from the film. Mostly that was to keep the film’s running time down, but I suspect that after the dull talkiness of the prequels, there may also have been some overcompensating course-correction away from anything with even a whiff of politics. Alas, that phobia of trade routes and senators resulted in an unclear backstory. It wasn’t until my third viewing that I realised that Hux’s speech is the closest thing to a blackboard scene for the galactic geopolitics: there’s a proxy war between wannabe extremists looking to set up a caliphate (think ISIS) and a resistance (think the Kurds) being funded by the dominant power (think America) …up until The First Order carry out a 9-11/Pearl Harbour/Vulcan scale attack, leaving the balance of power wide open—the next film could take it in any direction.

One of the most impressive achievements of The Force Awakens is that after seeing it, I didn’t want to think about how it tied back to the original films, as I expected I would want to do. Instead, I was entirely preoccupied with questions of what’s going to happen next.

Everyone is talking about Rey. Where is she from? What is her parentage? The most popular theories are currently:

  1. She is Luke Skywalker’s daughter.
  2. She is Han and Leia’s daughter, the secret sister of Kylo Ren.
  3. She is Ben Kenobi’s granddaughter.

Personally, I’d like it if her parentage were unremarkable. Maybe it’s the socialist in me, but I’ve never liked the idea that the Force is based on eugenics; a genetic form of inherited wealth for the lucky 1%. I prefer to think of the Force as something that could potentially be unlocked by anyone who tries hard enough.

But there are too many hints at Rey’s origins for her parentage to go unexplained. All the signs point to her having some kind of connection to existing bloodlines. Unless…

Lawrence Kasdan has been dropping hints about how odd Episode VIII is going to be, mostly because it has Rian Johnson at the helm. He gave us the terrific Looper. One of the most unsettling aspects of that film was the presence of a child with buried potential for destruction through telekinetic powers. For everyone’s safety, the child is kept far from civilisation.

Okay, I know it’s a stretch but what if Rey is on Jakku for similar reasons? Her parents aren’t Skywalkers or Kenobis, they’re just scared by the destructive episodes they’ve experienced with their Force-sensitive infant. With enormous reluctance—but for the greater good—they deposit her on a faraway world.


Okay, well, if you don’t like that theory, you’re going to hate this one:

What if Rey is the daughter of Luke and Leia?

Eww! I know, I know. But, hey, you can’t say the signs weren’t there all along. And the shame of an incestuous union could be the reason for the child’s secret exile.

It’s preposterous of course. Even in a post-Game Of Thrones landscape, that would be going too far, even for Rian Johnson …or would it?

Now I’ve planted the idea in your head. Sorry about that.

Still, how great is it that we we’re all talking about what’s going to happen next?

Some people have asked me where I think The Force Awakens ranks in comparison to the other Star Wars films, and I wasn’t prepared for the question. I honestly haven’t been thinking about it in the context of the original films. Instead I’ve been thinking about the new characters and the new storyline. As Maz Kanata would say:

The belonging you seek is not behind you, it is ahead.

Far afield

I spoke at Responsive Field Day here in Portland on Friday. It was an excellent event. All the talks were top notch.

The day flew by, with each talk clocking in at just 20 minutes, in batches of three followed by a quick panel discussion. It was a great format …but I knew it would be. See, Responsive Field Day was basically Responsive Day Out relocated to Portland.

Jason told me last year how inspired he was by the podcast recordings from Responsive Day Out and how much he and Lyza wanted to do a Responsive Day Out in Portland. I said “Go for it!” although I advised changing to the name to something a bit more American (having a “day out” at the seaside feels very British—a “field day” works perfectly as the US equivalent). Well, Jason, Lyza, and everyone at Cloud Four should feel very proud of their Responsive Field Day—it was wonderful.

As the day unfolded on Friday, I found myself being quite moved. It was genuinely touching to see my conference template replicated not only in format, but also in spirit. It was affordable (“Every expense spared!” was my motto), inclusive, diverse, and fast-paced. It was a lovely, lovely feeling to think that I had, in some small way, provided some inspiration for such a great event.

Jessica pointed out that isn’t the first time I’ve set up an event template for others to follow. When I organised the first Science Hack Day in London a few years ago, I never could have predicted how amazingly far Ariel would take the event. Fifty Science Hack Days in multiple countries—fifty! I am in awe of Ariel’s dedication. And every time I see pictures or video from a Science Hack Day in some far-flung location I’ve never been to, and I see the logo festooning the venue …I get such a warm fuzzy glow.

Y’know, when you’re making something—whether it’s an event, a website, a book, or anything else—it’s hard to imagine what kind of lifespan it might have. It’s probably just as well. I think it would be paralysing and overwhelming to even contemplate in advance. But in retrospect …it sure feels nice.

Recently speculative

I was a guest on the Boagworld podcast—neither Andy nor Richard were available so Paul and Marcus were stuck with me. We talked boring business stuff, but only after an extended—and much more interesting—preamble wherein we chatted about sci-fi books.

When prompted for which books I would recommend, I was able to instantly recall some recent reads, but inevitably I forgot to mention some others. I’m not sure if I even mentioned William Gibson’s The Peripheral, an unsurprisingly excellent book.

I’m pretty sure I mentioned The Girl In The Road. It has a magical realism quality to it that reminded me a bit of Lauren’s Zoo City. Its African/Indian setting makes for a refreshing change. Having said that, I still haven’t read Ian McDonald’s Indian-set River Of Gods or Cyberabad Days, both of which are sitting on my bookshelf alongside McDonald’s Out On Blue Six, which I have read and can heartily recommend—its imagining of a society where the algorithm decides the fate of all feels very ahead of its time.

One book I recommended without hesitation was Station Eleven. Maybe it was because I read it right after reading a book I found to be so-so—Paul McAuley’s Something Coming Through—but the writing in Station Eleven sucker-punched me right from the first chapter. Have a listen to the Boagworld podcast episode for some more ramblings on why I liked it.

Somehow I managed not to mention Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword. That’s unforgivable. They are easily amongst the best works of sci-fi I’ve read in a read long time. It feels quite exciting to be anticipating the third part in what will clearly be a long-time classic series, right up there with the all-time greats.

I first came across Ancillary Justice through some comparisons that were being made to Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. I was reading his final work, The Hydrogen Sonata, trying to take it slow, knowing that there would be no further books from that universe. But I ended up tearing through it because it was damned enjoyable (not necessarily brilliantly-written, mind; like most of Banks’s books, it’s a terrific and thought-provoking romp but missing the hand of a sterner editor). Anyway, I heard there were some similarities to the Ship Minds to be found in Leckie’s debut novel so I gave it a whirl. As it turns out, there are very few similarities and that’s all for the best. The universe that Leckie is describing has a very different but equally compelling richness.

I read Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy—Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance—and while I can’t say I enjoyed them as such, I can recommend them …though they are insidiously disturbing, dripping with atmosphere. I’m very intrigued by the news that Alex Garland is working on a screenplay.

So if you’re looking for some good recent speculative fiction, try:

Alongside the newer stuff, I’ve been catching up with some golden oldies in the form of tattered second-hand novels like Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Stanisław Lem’s The Futurological Congress, and Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse. I’m currently working my way through Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves and loving every minute of it.

dConstruct 2015 podcast: John Willshire

The latest dConstruct 2015 podcast episode is ready for your aural pleasure. This one’s a bit different. John Willshire came down to Brighton so that we could have our podcast chat face-to-face instead of over Skype.

It was fascinating to see the preparation that John is putting into his talk. He had labelled cards strewn across the table, each one containing a strand that he wants to try to weave into his talk. They also made for great conversation starters. That’s how we ended up talking about Interstellar and Man Of Steel, and the differing parenting styles contained therein. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to rid myself of the mental image of a giant holographic head of Michael Caine dispensing words of wisdom to in the Fortress Of Solitude. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light, Kal-el!”

The sound quality of this episode is more “atmospheric”, given the recording conditions (you can hear Clearlefties and seagulls in the background) but a splendid time was had by both John and myself. I hope that you enjoy listening to it.

I have a feeling that after listening to this, you’re definitely going to want to see John’s dConstruct talk, so grab yourself a ticket, using the discount code ‘ansible’ to get 10% off.

dConstruct 2015 podcast: Chriss Noessel

The fourth episode of the warmup podcast for dConstruct 2015 is here, and it’s a good one: it’s the one with Chris Noessel of Sci-fi Interfaces fame.

I enjoyed myself immensely geeking out with Chris about the technology presented in sci-fi films like Logan’s Run, Iron Man, X-Men, Metropolis, Under The Skin, and of course, Star Wars. I shared my crazy theory about Star Wars with Chris and he was very gracious in humouring me.

Oh, at the end of the episode, we reveal the special event that’s happening the evening before dConstruct:

The night before the conference, Chris Noessel, one of our fab speakers, will be hosting a very special screening of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’.

Don’t miss it. And don’t miss dConstruct. Remember, as a podcast listener, you get 10% off the ticket price with the discount code “ansible.”

dConstruct 2015 podcast: Ingrid Burrington

The dConstruct podcast episodes are coming thick and fast. Hot on the heels of the inaugural episode with Matt Novak and the sophomore episode with Josh Clark comes the third in the series: the one with Ingrid Burrington.

This was a fun meeting of minds. We geeked out about the physical infrastructure of the internet and time-travel narratives, from The Terminator to The Peripheral. During the episode, I sounded the spoiler warning in case you haven’t read that book, but we didn’t actually end up giving anything away.

I really enjoyed this chat with Ingrid. I hope you’ll enjoy listening to it.

Oh, and now you can subscribe to the dConstruct 2015 podcast directly from iTunes.

And remember, as a podcast listener, you get 10% off the ticket price for dConstruct using the discount code “ansible.”

100 words 005

I enjoy a good time travel yarn. Two of the most enjoyable temporal tales of recent years have been Rian Johnson’s film Looper and William Gibson’s book The Peripheral.

Mind you, the internal time travel rules of Looper are all over the place, whereas The Peripheral is wonderfully consistent.

Both share an interesting commonality in their settings. They are set in the future and …the future: two different time periods but neither of them are the present. Both works also share the premise that the more technologically advanced future would inevitably exploit the time period further down the light cone.

Star wheels

This list has been making the rounds lately. It’s the list of (probably apocryphal) rules underlying the world of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Design principles if you will. Like “The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going ‘meep, meep’” and “All tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.”

These are patterns that we are all subconsciously aware of anyway, but there’s something about seeing them enumerated that makes us go “oh, yeah” in recognition.

This reminds me of a silly idea I had when I was younger. It’s about Star Wars (of course). Specifically it’s about a possible rule—or design principle—underlying the kitbashed used-universe design of that galaxy far, far away.

Now I know this is going to sound crazy, but hear me out…

What if the wheel has never been invented in the world of Star Wars?

It’s probably not a deliberate omission, but we never actually see a single wheel in the original trilogy (the prequels, as always, are another matter entirely). Sure, there are wheels implied under the imperial mouse droid or under R2-D2’s legs but you never actually see them. Even the sandcrawler, which uses tracks, hides its internal workings.

Instead, this is a universe where everything travels via some kind of maglev antigravity even when it seems completely unnecessary—couldn’t you just slap a carbonite Han Solo on a gurney? Whenever a spaceship extends its landing gear we see …skids. Always skids. Never wheels. And what kind of mechanical engineer would actually design something like an AT-AT if it weren’t for a prohibition on wheels?

I know you’re probably thinking “this is so stupid”, but I bet you’re also trying to think of an explicit instance of a wheel in the original trilogy. You may also be feeling a growing urge to watch the films again. And whenever you do end up watching the trilogy again, and you find yourself looking at the undercarriage of every vehicle, you’ll realise that I’ve planted this idea Inception-like in your head.

Anyway, like I said, the prequels put paid to my little theory. I was genuinely disappointed when those droidekas rolled down that corridor. Remember that feeling of “oh, please!” when R2-D2 used his thrusters to fly in Attack Of The Clones? You felt cheated, right? The film was breaking the rules of its own universe. Well, a little part of me felt that way when my silly theory was squashed.

But just go with it here for a minute. Suppose the wheel had never been invented. Would it be possible for a space-faring civilisation to evolve? It’s generally assumed that you’d need to at least invent fire to achieve any kind of mechanical advances, but what about the wheel?

Imagine if George Lucas had actually been playing a design fiction long con. My younger self liked to imagine that lists of instructions were passed around ILM, along the same lines as those Road Runner rules. And one of those instructions would’ve been the cryptic injunction against showing wheels in any vehicle designs. Then imagine what it would have been like if, decades later, Lucas casually dropped the bombshell that the wheel was never invented in this galaxy far, far away. It would’ve blown. Our. Minds.

Ah, but it was just a dream. A crazy, apopheniac dream.


As something of a science geek, I’m a big fan of the work of the Wellcome Trust:

We support the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. Our breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health.

I was very excited when Clearleft had the opportunity to work with them—we redesigned the Wellcome Library a while back. That was a fun responsive project, and an early use of a pattern portfolio as the deliverable.

We’ve been working with them on some other projects since then. We helped out with Mosaic, their terrific magazine site. I really enjoyed popping in to their fantastic building to chat with their talented designers.

The most recent Clearleft/Wellcome collaboration is something called Mindcraft. This started as a completely open-ended project—no one was quite sure what form the finished result would take. Over time it developed into a narrative-based series of historical events brought to life with browser technologies.

I didn’t work on this project but I loved watching it come together. The source material made for an interesting work environment.

Crazy wall Maps and legends.

Graham and Danielle did the front-end development, bringing Mikey’s designs to life, once Rich and Ben figured out the flow (all overseen by Jess).

The press release for Mindcraft describes it as “immersive” which immediately sets alarm bells ringing in expectation of big, scrolljacking pages …and to be honest, Mindcraft does have elements of that. It’s primarily intended to be visited on a large screen with a fast connection (although it’ll work on any sized-screen). But I think it manages to strike a pretty healthy balance of performance and “richness.” It certainly doesn’t feel gratuitous. The use of sound, imagery, and interaction is all in service to the story.

And boy, what a story!

Mindcraft explores a century of madness, murder and mental healing, from the arrival in Paris of Franz Anton Mesmer with his theories of ‘animal magnetism’ to the therapeutic power of hypnotism used by Freud.

I suggest you put on some headphones, make your browser window fullscreen, and start your journey.

It’s creepy, atmospheric, entertaining, and educational, all at the same time. I really like it. And I’m not just saying that because of Clearleft’s involvement. Like I said, I’m a science geek.


Jessica and I entered the basement of The Dukes at Komedia last weekend to listen to Sarah and her band Spacedog provide live musical accompaniment to short sci-fi films from the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries.

It was part of the Cine City festival, which is still going on here in Brighton—Spacedog will also be accompanying a performance of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, and there’s going to be a screening of François Truffaut’s brilliant film version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in the atmospheric surroundings of Brighton’s former reference library. I might try to get along to that, although there’s a good chance that I might cry at my favourite scene. Gets me every time.

Those 100-year old sci-fi shorts featured familiar themes—time travel, monsters, expeditions to space. I was reminded of a recent gathering in San Francisco with some of my nerdiest of nerdy friends, where we discussed which decade might qualify as the golden age of science fiction cinema. The 1980s certainly punched above their weight—1982 and 1985 were particularly good years—but I also said that I think we’re having a bit of a sci-fi cinematic golden age right now. This year alone we’ve had Edge Of Tomorrow, Guardians Of The Galaxy, and Interstellar.

Ah, Interstellar!

If you haven’t seen it yet, now would be a good time to stop reading. Imagine that I’ve written the word “spoilers” in all-caps, followed by many many line breaks before continuing.

Ten days before we watched Spacedog accompanying silent black and white movies in a tiny basement theatre, Jessica and I watched Interstellar on the largest screen we could get to. We were in Seattle, which meant we had the pleasure of experiencing the film projected in 70mm IMAX at the Pacific Science Center, right by the space needle.

I really, really liked it. Or, at least, I’ve now decided that I really, really liked it. I wasn’t sure when I first left the cinema. There were many things that bothered me, and those things battled against the many, many things that I really enjoyed. But having thought about it more—and, boy, does this film encourage thought and discussion—I’ve been able to resolve quite a few of the issues I was having with the film.

I hate to admit that most of my initial questions were on the science side of things. I wish I could’ve switched off that part of my brain.

There’s an apocryphal story about an actor asking “Where’s the light coming from?”, and being told “Same place as the music.” I distinctly remember thinking that very same question during Interstellar. The first planetfall of the film lands the actors and the audience on a world in orbit around a black hole. So where’s the light coming from?

The answer turns out to be that the light is coming from the accretion disk of that black hole.

But wouldn’t the radiation from the black hole instantly fry any puny humans that approach it? Wouldn’t the planet be ripped apart by the gravitational tides?

Not if it’s a rapidly-spinning supermassive black hole with a “gentle” singularity.

These are nit-picky questions that I wish I wasn’t thinking of. But I like the fact that there are answers to those questions. It’s just that I need to seek out those answers outside the context of the movie—I should probably read Kip Thorne’s book. The movie gives hints at resolving those questions—there’s just one mention of the gentle singularity—but it’s got other priorities: narrative, plot, emotion.

Still, I wish that Interstellar had managed to answer my questions while the film was still happening. This is something that Inception managed brilliantly: for all its twistiness, you always know exactly what’s going on, which is no mean feat. I’m hoping and expecting that Interstellar will reward repeated viewings. I’m certainly really looking forward to seeing it again.

In the meantime, I’ll content myself with re-watching Inception, which makes a fascinating companion piece to Interstellar. Both films deal with time and gravity as malleable, almost malevolent forces. But whereas Cobb travels as far inward as it is possible for a human to go, Coop travels as far outward as it is possible for our species to go.

Interstellar is kind of a mess. There’s plenty of sub-par dialogue and strange narrative choices. But I can readily forgive all that because of the sheer ambition and imagination on display. I’m not just talking about the imagination and ambition of the film-makers—I’m talking about the ambition and imagination of the human race.

That’s at the heart of the film, and it’s a message I can readily get behind.

Before we even get into space, we’re shown a future that, by any reasonable definition, would be considered a dystopia. The human race has been reduced to a small fraction of its former population, technological knowledge has been lost, and the planet is dying. And yet, where this would normally be the perfect storm required to show roving bands of road warriors pillaging their way across the dusty landscape, here we get an agrarian society with no hint of violence. The nightmare scenario is not that the human race is wiped out through savagery, but that the human race dies out through a lack of ambition and imagination.

Religion isn’t mentioned once in this future, but Interstellar does feature a deus ex machina in the shape of a wormhole that saves the day for the human race. I really like the fact that this deus ex machina isn’t something that’s revealed at the end of the movie—it’s revealed very early on. The whole plot turns out to be a glorious mash-up of two paradoxes: the bootstrap paradox and the twin paradox.

The end result feels like a mixture of two different works by Arthur C. Clarke: The Songs Of Distant Earth and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

2001 is the more obvious work to compare it to, and the film readily invites that comparison. Many reviewers have been quite to point out that Interstellar doesn’t reach the same heights as Kubrick’s 2001. That’s a fair point. But then again, I’m not sure that any film can ever reach the bar set by 2001. I honestly think it’s as close to perfect as any film has ever come.

But I think it’s worth pointing out that when 2001 was released, it was not greeted with universal critical acclaim. Quite the opposite. Many reviewers found it tedious, cold, and baffling. It divided opinion greatly …much like Interstellar is doing now.

In some ways, Interstellar offers a direct challenge to 2001—what if mankind’s uplifting is not caused by benevolent alien beings, but by the distant descendants of the human race?

This is revealed as a plot twist, but it was pretty clearly signposted from early in the film. So, not much of a plot twist then, right?

Well, maybe not. What if Coop’s hypothesis—that the wormhole is the creation of future humans—isn’t entirely correct? He isn’t the only one who crosses the event horizon. He is accompanied by the robot TARS. In the end, the human race is saved by the combination of Coop the human’s connection to his daughter, and the analysis carried out by TARS. Perhaps what we’re witnessing there is a glimpse of the true future for our species; human-machine collaboration. After all, if humanity is going to transcend into a fifth-dimensional species at some future point, it’s unlikely to happen through biology alone. But if you combine the best of the biological—a parent’s love for their child—with the best of technology, then perhaps our post-human future becomes not only plausible, but inevitable.

Deus ex machina.

Thinking about the future of the species in this co-operative way helps alleviate the uncomfortable feeling I had that Interstellar was promoting a kind of Manifest Destiny for the human race …although I’m not sure that I’m any more comfortable with that being replaced by a benevolent technological determinism.


Science Hack Day San Francisco was held in the Github offices last weekend. It was brilliant!

Hacking begins Hacking Science hacker & grumpy cat enthusiast, Keri Bean Launch pad

This was the fifth Science Hack Day in San Francisco and the 40th worldwide. That’s truly incredible. I mean, I literally can’t believe it. When I organised the very first Science Hack Day back in 2010, I had no idea how far it would go. But Ariel has been indefatigable in making it a truly global event. She is amazing. And at this year’s San Francisco event, she outdid herself in putting together a fantastic cross-section of scientists, designers, and developers: paleontology, marine biology, geology, astronomy, particle physics, and many, many more disciplines were represented in the truly diverse attendees.

Saturday breakfast with the Science Hack Day community! The Science Hack Day girls! Stargazing on GitHub's roof Demos begin!

After an inspiring set of lightning talks on the first day, ideas started getting bounced around and the hacking began to take shape. I had a vague idea for—yet another—space-related hack. What clinched it was picking the brains of NASA’s Keri Bean. She’d help me get hold of the dataset I needed for my silly little hack.

So here’s the background…

There are many possibilities for human habitats in space: Stanford tori, O’Neill cylinders, Bernal spheres. Another idea, explored in science fiction, is hollowing out asteroids (Larry Niven’s bubbleworlds). Kim Stanley Robinson explores this idea in depth in his book 2312, where he describes the process of building an asteroid terrarium. The website of the book has a delightful walkthrough of the engineering processes involved. It’s not entirely implausible.

I wanted to make that idea approachable, so I thought about the kinds of people we might want to have living with us on the interior shell of a rotating hollowed-out asteroid. How about the people you follow on Twitter?

The only question that remains then is: which asteroid is the right one for you and your Twitter friends? Keri tracked down the motherlode of asteroid data and I started hacking the simplest of mashups—Twitter meets space rocks.

Here’s the result…



Give it your Twitter username and it will tell you exactly which one of the asteroids in the main belt is right for you (I considered adding an enterprise option that would tell you where you could store your social network in the cloud …the Oort cloud, that is).

Be default, your asteroid will have the population density of Earth, which is quite generously. But if you want a more sparsely-populated habitat—say, the population density of Australia—or a more densely-populated world—with something like the population density of Japan—then you will be assigned a larger or smaller asteroid accordingly.

You’ll also be told by how much you should increase or decrease the rotation of the asteroid to get one gee of centrifugal force on the interior. Figuring out the equations for calculating centrifugal force almost broke me, but luckily I had help from a rocket scientist and a particle physicist …I’m not even kidding. And I should point out that the calculations take some liberties—I’m assuming a spherical body, which is quite a stretch, given the lumpy nature of most asteroids.

At 13:37 on the second day, the demos began. Keri and I were first up.

Jeremy wants to colonize an asteroid Habitasteroids

Give Habitasteroids a whirl for yourself. It’s a silly little thing, but I quite like how it turned out.

Speaking of silly things …at some point in the proceedings, Keri put the call out for asteroid data to her fellow space enthusiasts on Twitter. They responded with asteroid-related puns.

They have nice asteroids though: @brianwolven, @lukedones, @paix120, @LGalache, @motorbikematt, @brx0.

Oh, and while Habitasteroids might be a silly little hack, WRANGLER just might work.

WRANGLER: Capture and De-Spin of Asteroids and Space Debris

The telescope in the woods

I met Sandijs of Froont fame when I was in Austin for Artifact back in May. He mentioned how he’d like to put on an event in his home city of Riga, and I said I’d be up for that. So last weekend I popped over to Latvia to speak at an event he organised at a newly-opened co-working space in the heart of Riga.

That was on Friday, so Jessica I had the rest of the weekend to be tourists. Sandijs rented a car and took us out into the woods. There, in the middle of a forest, was an observatory: the Baldone Schmidt telescope.

Baldone Schmidt Telescope Baldone Schmidt Telescope

The day we visited was the Summer soltice and we were inside the observatory getting a tour of the telescope at the precise moment that the astronomical summer began.

It’s a beautiful piece of machinery. It has been cataloging and analysing carbon stars since the ’60s.

Controls Controls

Nowadays, the images captured by the telescope go straight into a computer, but they used to be stored on glass plates. Those glass plates are now getting digitised too. There’s one person doing all the digitising. It takes about forty minutes to digitise one glass plate. There are approximately 22,000 glass plates in the archive.

Archives Glass plates

It’s going to be a long process. But once all that data is available in a machine-readable format, there will inevitably be some interesting discoveries to made from mining that treasure trove.

The telescope has already been used to discover a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt. It’s about 1.5 kilometers wide. Its name is Baldone.


You can listen to an audio version of Seams.

“The function of science fiction,” said Ray Bradbury, “is not only to predict the future, but to prevent it.”

Dystopias are the default setting for science fiction. It’s rare to find utopian sci-fi, and when you do—as in the post-singularity Culture novels of Iain M.Banks—there’s always more than a germ of dystopia; the dystutopias that Margaret Atwood speaks of.

You’ve got your political dystopias—1984 and all its imitators. Then there’s alien invasion dystopias, machine-intelligence dystopias, and a whole slew of post-apocalyptic dystopias: nuclear war, pandemic disease, environmental collapse, genetic engineering …take your pick. From the cosy catastrophes of John Wyndham to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, this is the stock and trade of speculative fiction.

Of all these undesirable futures, one that troubles more than any other is the Wall·E dystopia. I’m not talking about the environmental wasteland depicted on Earth. I mean the dystutopia depicted aboard the generation starship The Axiom. Here, humanity’s every need is catered to without requiring any thought. And so humanity atrophies, becoming physically obese and intellectually lazy.

It’s not a new idea. H. G. Wells had already shown us a distant future like this in his classic novel The Time Machine. In the far future of that book’s timeline, humanity splits into two. The savagery of the canabalistic Morlocks is contrasted with the docile passive stupidity of the Eloi, but as Jaron Lanier points out, both endpoints are equally horrific.

In Wall·E, the Eloi have advanced technology. Their technology has been designed according to a design principle enshrined in the title of a Dead Kennedys album: Give Me Convenience Or Give Me Death.

That’s the reason why the Wall·E dystopia disturbs me so much. It’s all-too believable. For many years now, the rallying cry of digital designers has been epitomised by the title of Steve Krug’s terrific book, Don’t Make Me Think. But what happens when that rallying cry is taken too far? What happens when it stops being “don’t make think while I’m trying to complete a task” to simply “don’t make me think” full stop?

Convenience. Ease of use. Seamlessness.

On the face of it, these all seem like desirable traits in digital and physical products alike. But they come at a price. When we design, we try to do the work so that the user doesn’t have to. We do the thinking so the user doesn’t have to. Don’t make the user think. But taken too far, that mindset becomes dangerous.

Marshall McLuhan said that every extension is also an amputution. As we augment the abilities of people to accomplish their tasks, we should be careful not to needlessly curtail what they can do:

Here we are, a society hell bent on extending our reach through phones, through computers, through “seamless integration” and yet all along the way we’re unwittingly losing perhaps as much as we gain. The mediums we create are built to carry out specific tasks efficiently, but by doing so they have a tendency to restrict our options for accomplishing that task by other means. We begin to learn the “One” way to do it, when in fact there are infinite ways. The medium begins to restrict our thinking, our imagination, our potential.

The idea of “seamlessness” as a desirable trait in what we design is one that bothers me. Technology has seams. By hiding those seams, we may think we are helping the end user, but we are also making a conscience choice to deceive them (or at least restrict what they can do).

I see this a lot in the world of web devlopment. We’re constantly faced with challenges like dealing with users on slow networks or small screens. So we try to come up with solutions (bandwidth media queries, responsive images) that have at their heart an assumption that we know better than the end user what they should get.

I’m not saying that everything should be an option in a menu for the user to figure out—picking smart defaults is very much part of our job. But I do think there’s real value in giving the user the final choice.

I remember Jake giving a good example of this. If he’s travelling and he’s on a 3G network on his phone, or using shitty hotel WiFi on his laptop, and someone sends him a link to a video of some cats, he doesn’t mind if he gets the low-quality version as long as he gets to see the feline shenanigans in short order. But if he’s in the same situation and someone sends him a link to the just-released trailer for the new Star Trek movie, he’s willing to wait for hours so that he can watch in high-definition.

That’s a choice. All too often, these kind of choices are pre-made by designers and developers instead of being offered to the end user. We probably mean well, but there’s a real danger in assuming that just because someone is using a particular device that we can infer what their context is:

Mind reading is no way to base fundamental content decisions.

My point is that while we don’t want to overwhelm the user with choice overload, we also need to be careful not to unintentionally remove valuable choices that can empower people. In our quest to make experiences seamless, we run the risk of also making those experiences rigid and inflexible.

The drive for a “seamless experience” has been used to justify some harsh amputations. When Twitter declared war on the very developers it used to champion, and changed its API and terms of service so that tweets had to be displayed the same way everywhere, it was done in the name of “a consistent user experience.” Twitter knows best.

The web is made up of parts and there are seams between those parts: HTML, HTTP, and URLs. The software that can expose or hide those seams is the web browser. Web browsers are made by human beings and it’s the mindset and assumptions of those human beings that determines whether web browsers are enabling or disabling users to make use of those seams.

“View source” is a seam that exposes the HTML lying beneath every web page. That kind of X-ray vision can be quite powerful. Clearly it’s not an important feature for most users, but it is directly responsible for showing people how web pages are made …and intimating that anyone can do it. In the introduction to my first book I thanked “view source” along with my other teachers like Jeff Veen, Steve Champeon, and Jeffrey Zeldman.

These days, browsers don’t like to expose “view source” as easily as they once did. It’s hidden amongst the developer tools. There’s an assumption there that it’s not intended for regular users. The browser makers know best.

There are seams between the technologies that make up a web page: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The ability to enable or disable those layers can be empowering. It has become harder and harder to disable JavaScript in the browser. Another little amputation. The browser makers know best.

The CSS that styles web pages can be over-ridden by the end user. This is not a bug. It is a very powerful feature. That feature is being removed:

I understand that vendors can do whatever they want to control how you experience the web, because it is their software, their product, but removing user stylesheets feels sooo un-web to me, which is irony. A browser’s largest responsibility is to give people access to the web. It’s like the web is this open hand, but software is this closed fist.

Then there’s the URL. The ultimate seam.

Historically, browsers have exposed this seam, but now—just as with “view source” and user stylesheets—the visibility of the URL is being relegated to being a power-user tool.

The ultimate amputation.

The irony here is that the justification for this change is not the usual mantra of providing “a more seamless user experience.” Instead, the justification is supposedly security.

This strike me as really strange. Security is the one area where seamlessness is definitely not a desirable characteristic. A secure system requires people to be mindful and aware of their situation. This is certainly true on the web, as Tom points out:

Hiding information away makes me less able to make decisions: it makes me a less informed user.

The whole reason that phishing is a problem is because users don’t pay any bloody attention to what they see in their location bar. Putting less information in the location bar makes the location bar less useful and thus there’s less point paying any attention to it.

Tom has hit on the fundamental mismatch here. Chrome is a piece of software that wants to provide a good user experience—“don’t make me think!”—while at the same trying to make users mindful of their surroundings:

Security requires educated, pro-active, informed thinking users.

Usability is about making the whole process of using the web seamless and thoughtless: a child should be able to do it.

So from the security standpoint, obfuscating the URL is exactly the wrong thing to do.

In order to actually stay safe online, you need to see the “seams” of the web, you need to pay attention, use your brain.

Chrome knows best.

Making it harder to “view source” might seem like an inconsequentail decision. Removing the ability to apply user stylesheets might seem like an inconsequential decision. Heck, even hiding the URL might seem like an inconsequential decision. But each one of those decisions has repercussions. And each one of those decisions reflects an underlying viewpoint.

Make no mistake, all software is political. We talk about opinionated software but really, all software is opinionated, whether we like it or not. Seemingly inconsequential interface decisions are actually reflections of assumptions, biases and beliefs.

As Nat points out, like all political decisions, this is about power:

There’s been much debate about whether the URLs are ‘ugly’ or ‘beautiful’ and whether people really understand them. This debate misses the point.

The URLs are the cornerstone of the interconnected, decentralised web. Removing the URLs from the browser is an attempt to expand and consolidate centralised power.

If that’s the case, then it really doesn’t matter what we think about Chrome removing visible URLs. What appears to be a design decision about the user interface is in fact a manifestation of a much deeper vision. It’s a vision of a future where people can have everything their heart desires without having to expend needless thought. It’s a bright future filled with seamless experiences.

Welcome aboard The Axiom.

Buy n Large knows best.

Connections: Weak Signals

Tuesday evening saw the inaugural Connections event at 68 Middle Street, home to Clearleft. It was a rousing success—much fun was had by all.

There was a great turn-out. Normally I’d expect a fairly significant no-show rate for a free event (they’re often oversubscribed to account for this very reason), but I was amazed how many people braved the dreadful weather to come along. We greeted them all with free beer, courtesy of Clearleft.

The talks had a nice yin and yang quality to them. Honor talked about darkness. Justin talked about light. More specifically, Honor talked about dark matter and Justin talked about Solarpunk.

Honor made plentiful use of sound during her presentation. Or rather, plentiful use of electromagnetic signals converted into sound: asteroseismology from the sun; transient luminous events in the Earth’s upper atmosphere; the hailstorm as Cassini pirouettes through Saturn’s rings; subatomic particle collisions sonified. They all combined to eerie effect.

Justin’s talk was more down to Earth, despite sounding like a near-future science-fiction scenario: individuals and communities harnessing the power of the photovoltaic solar panel to achieve energy-independence.

There was a beer break between the talks and we had a joint discussion afterwards, with questions from the audience. I was leading the discussion, and to a certain extent, I played devil’s advocate to Justin’s ideas, countering his solar energy enthusiasm with nuclear energy enthusiasm—I’m on Team Thorium. (Actually, I wasn’t really playing devil’s advocate. I genuinely believe that nuclear energy is the cleanest, safest source of energy available to us and that an anti-nuclear environmentalist is a contradiction in terms—but that’s a discussion for another day.)

There was a bittersweet tinge to the evening. The first Connections event was also Honor’s last public speaking engagement in Brighton for a while. She is bidding farewell to Lighthouse Arts and winging her way to a new life in Singapore. We wish her well. We will miss her.

The evening finished with a facetious rhetorical question from the audience for Honor. It was related to the sonification of particle collisions like the ones that produced evidence for “the God particle”, the Higgs boson. “Given that the music produced is so unmusical”, went the question, “does that mean it’s proof that God doesn’t exist?”

We all had a laugh and then we all went to the pub. But I’ve been thinking about that question, and while I don’t have an answer, I do have a connection to make between both of the talks and algorithmically-generated music. Here goes…

Justin talked about the photovoltaic work done at Bell Labs. An uncle of Ray Kurzweil worked at Bell Labs and taught the young Kurzweil the basics of computer science. Soon after, Ray Kurzweil wrote his first computer program, one that analysed works of classical music and then generated its own music. Here it is.


I’ve just come back from a multi-hop trip to the States, spanning three cities in just over two weeks.

It started with an all-too-brief trip to San Francisco for Science Hack Day, which—as I’ve already described—was excellent. It was a shame that it was such a flying visit and I didn’t get to see many people. But then again, I’ll be back in December for An Event Apart San Francisco.

It was An Event Apart that took me to my second destination: Austin, Texas. The conference was great, as always. But was really nice was having some time afterwards to explore the town. Being in Austin when it’s not South by Southwest is an enjoyable experience that I can heartily recommend.

Christopher and Ari took me out to Lockhart to experience Smitty’s barbecue—a place with a convoluted family drama and really, really excellent smoked meat. I never really “got” Texas BBQ until now. I always thought I liked the sauced-based variety, but now I understand: if the BBQ is good enough, you don’t need the sauce.

For the rest of my stay, Sam was an excellent host, showing me around her town until it was time for me to take off for New York city.

To start with, I was in Manhattan. I was going to be speaking at Future Of Web Design right downtown on 42nd street, and I showed up a few days early to rendezvous with Jessica and do some touristing.

We perfected the cheapskate’s guide to Manhattan, exploring the New York Public Library, having Tiff show us around the New York Times, and wrangling a tour of the MoMA from Ben Fino-Radin, who’s doing some fascinating work with the digital collection.

I gave my FOWD talk, which went fine once the technical glitches were sorted out (I went through three microphones in five minutes). The conference was in a cinema, which meant my slides were giganormous. That was nice, but the event had an odd kind of vibe. Maybe it was the venue, or maybe it was the two-track format …I really don’t like two-track conferences; I constantly feel like I’m missing out on something.

I skipped out on the second day of the conference to make my way over the bridge to Brooklyn in time for my third trip to Brooklyn Beta.

This year, they tried something quite different. For the first two days, there was a regular Brooklyn Beta: 300 lovely people gathered together at the Invisible Dog, ostensibly to listen to talks but in reality to hang out and chat. It was joyous.

Then on the third and final day, those 300 people decamped to Brooklyn’s Navy Yard to join a further 1000 people. There we heard more talks and had more chats.

Alas, the acoustics in the hangar-like space battled against the speakers. That’s why I made sure to grab a seat near the front for the afternoon talks. I found myself with a front-row seat for a series of startup stories and app tales. Then, without warning, the tech talks were replaced with stand-up comics. The comedians were very, very good (Reggie Watts!) …but I found it hard to pay attention because I realised I was in a living nightmare: somehow I was in the front-row seat of a stand-up comedy show. I spent the entire time thinking “Please don’t pick on me, please don’t pick on me, please don’t…” I couldn’t sneak out either, because that would’ve only drawn attention to myself.

But apart from confronting me with my worst fears, Brooklyn Beta was great …I’m just not sure it scales well from 300 to 1300.

And with that, my American sojourn came to an end. I’m glad that the stars aligned in such a way that I was able to hit up four events in my 16 day trip:

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

When most people see Peter Saville’s iconic cover for Unknown Pleasures, they think of Joy Division and the tragically early death of lead singer Ian Curtis. But whenever I come across variations of FACT 10, I see a tribute to Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

Unknown Pleasures album cover

The album’s artwork is an inverted version of an illustration from the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy (which brings up all sorts of fascinating questions about Saville’s “remixing” of the original). It represents a series of pulses from CP 1919, the first pulsar ever discovered.

The regularity of the radio pulses is what caused the source to be initially labelled LGM-1, standing for “Little Green Men.” But the actual cause of the speed and regularity turned out to be equally stunning: a magnetised incredibly massive neutron star rotating once every 1.3373 seconds.

Pulsars keep their regularity for millions of years. They are the lighthouses of their host galaxies. When Carl Sagan was designing the Pioneer plaque and the Voyager golden record, he included a pulsar map that pointed the way to Earth—a decision that was criticised by many for inviting potentially hostile attention.

The pioneer plaque

That first pulsar— CP 1919 (or LGM-1)—was discovered by Jocelyn Bell Burnell on November 28, 1967 while she was still a PH.d student, using the radio telescope she helped build. In fact, she discovered the first four pulsars. In 1974, the Nobel Prize in physics was, for the first time, awarded to an astronomer. It went to her Professor, Antony Hewish.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell herself claims no animosity on this point, but I can’t help but wonder if the committee might have made a different decision had the discoverer of one of the most important astronomical finds of the twentieth century had been a man.

She describes how the Daily Mail ran the pulsar discovery story with the headline Girl Discovers Little Green Men:

They did not know what to do with a young female scientist, you were a young female, you were page three, you weren’t a scientist.

For a fascinating insight into the career of Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, I highly recommend listening to Jim al-Khalili’s interview with her on BBC 4’s The Life Scientific.

Radio Free Earth

Back at the first San Francisco Science Hack Day I wanted to do some kind of mashup involving the speed of light and the distance of stars:

I wanted to build a visualisation based on Matt’s brilliant light cone idea, but I found it far too daunting to try to find data in a usable format and come up with a way of drawing a customisable geocentric starmap of our corner of the galaxy. So I put that idea on the back burner…

At this year’s San Francisco Science Hack Day, I came back to that idea. I wanted some kind of mashup that demonstrated the connection between the time that light has travelled from distant stars, and the events that would have been happening on this planet at that moment. So, for example, a star would be labelled with “the battle of Hastings” or “the sack of Rome” or “Columbus’s voyage to America”. To do that, I’d need two datasets; the distance of stars, and the dates of historical events (leaving aside any Gregorian/Julian fuzziness).

For wont of a better hack, Chloe agreed to help me out. We set to work finding a good dataset of stellar objects. It turned out that a lot of the best datasets from NASA were either about our local solar neighbourhood, or else really distant galaxies and stars that are emitting prehistoric light.

The best dataset we could find was the Near Star Catalogue from Uranometria but the most distant star in that collection was only 70 or 80 light years away. That meant that we could only mash it up with historical events from the twentieth century. We figured we could maybe choose important scientific dates from the past 70 or 80 years, but to be honest, we really weren’t feeling it.

We had reached this impasse when it was time for the Science Hack Day planetarium show. It was terrific: we were treated to a panoramic tour of space, beginning with low Earth orbit and expanding all the way out to the cosmic microwave background radiation. At one point, the presenter outlined the reach of Earth’s radiosphere. That’s the distance that ionosphere-penetrating radio and television signals from Earth, travelling at the speed of light, have reached. “It extends about 70 light years out”, said the presenter.

This was perfect! That was exactly the dataset of stars that we had. It was a time for a pivot. Instead of the lofty goal of mapping historical events to the night sky, what if we tried to do something more trivial and fun? We could demonstrate how far classic television shows have travelled. Has Star Trek reached Altair? Is Sirius receiving I Love Lucy yet?

No, not TV shows …music! Now we were onto something. We would show how far the songs of planet Earth had travelled through space and which stars were currently receiving which hits.

Chloe remembered there being an API from Billboard, who have collected data on chart-topping songs since the 1940s. But that API appears to be gone, and the Echonest API doesn’t have chart dates. So instead, Chloe set to work screen-scraping Wikipedia for number one hits of the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s …you get the picture. It was a lot of finding and replacing, but in the end we had a JSON file with every number one for the past 70 years.

Meanwhile, I was putting together the logic. Our list of stars had the distances in parsecs. So I needed to convert the date of a number one hit song into the number of parsecs that song had travelled, and then find the last star that it has passed.

We were tempted—for developer convenience—to just write all the logic in JavaScript, especially as our data was in JSON. But even though it was just a hack, I couldn’t bring myself to write something that relied on JavaScript to render the content. So I wrote some really crappy PHP instead.

By the end of the first day, the functionality was in place: you could enter a date, and find out what was number one on that date, and which star is just now receiving that song.

After the sleepover (more like a wakeover) in the aquarium, we started to style the interface. I say “we” …Chloe wrote the CSS while I made unhelpful remarks.

For the icing on the cake, Chloe used her previous experience with the Rdio API to add playback of short snippets of each song (when it’s available).

Here’s the (more or less) finished hack:

Radio Free Earth.

Basically, it’s a simple mashup of music and space …which is why I spent the whole time thinking “What would Matt do?”

Just keep hitting that button to hear a hit from planet Earth and see which lucky star is currently receiving the signal.*


*I know, I know: the inverse-square law means it’s practically impossible that the signal would be in any state to be received, but hey, it’s a hack.

Science Hack Day San Francisco

When I organised the first ever Science Hack Day in London in 2010, I made sure to write about how I organised the event. That’s because I wanted to encourage other people to organise their own Science Hack Days:

If I can do it, anyone can. And anyone should.

Later that year, Ariel organised a Science Hack Day in Palo Alto at the Institute For The Future. It was magnificent. Since then, Ariel has become a tireless champion and global instigator of Science Hack Day, spreading the idea, encouraging new events all over the world, and where possible, travelling to them. I just got the ball rolling—she has really run with it.

She organised another Science Hack Day in San Francisco for last weekend and I was lucky enough to attend—it coincided nicely with my travel plans to the States for An Event Apart in Austin. Once again, it was absolutely brilliant. There were tons of ingenious hacks, and the attendees were a wonderfully diverse bunch: some developers and designers, but also plenty of scientists and students, many (perhaps most) from out of town.

Hacking Hacking Hacking Lunch outdoors

But best of all was the venue: The California Academy of Sciences. It’s a fantastic museum, and after 5pm—when the public left—we had the place to ourselves. Penguins, crocodiles, a rainforest, an aquarium …it’s got it all. I didn’t get a chance to do all of the activities that were provided—I was too busy hacking or helping out—like stargazing on the roof, or getting a tour of the archives. But I did make it to the private planetarium show, which was wonderful.

Hacking Hacking

The Science Hackers spent the night, unrolling their sleeping bags in all the nooks and crannies of the aquarium and the African hall. It was like being a big kid. Mind you, the fun of sleeping over in such a great venue was somewhat tempered by the fact that trying to sleep in a sleeping bag on just a yoga mat on a hard floor is pretty uncomfortable. I was quite exhausted by day two of the event, but I powered through on the wave of infectious enthusiasm exhibited by all the attendees.

Sleeping over Sleeping over

Then when it came time to demo all the hacks …well, I was blown away. So much cool stuff.

Ariel and her team really outdid themselves. I’m so happy I was able to make it to the event. If you get the chance to attend a Science Hack Day, take it. And if there isn’t one happening near you, why not organise one? Ariel has put together a handy checklist to get you started so you can get excited and make things with science.

I’m still quite amazed that this was the 24th Science Hack Day! When I organised the first one three years ago, I had no idea that it could spread so far, but thanks to Ariel, it has become a truly special phenomenon.

Stargazing Planetarium