The first of Neil Bomkamp’s series of short films—testbeds for potential feature films.
Sunday, June 25th, 2017
Sunday, June 18th, 2017
Beyond Curie is a design project that highlights badass women in science, technology, engineering + mathematics.
Monday, June 12th, 2017
The following film describes an unusual motion picture now being produced in London for release all over the world, starting in early 1967.
Friday, June 9th, 2017
Talking with the tall man about poetry
When I started making websites in the 1990s, I had plenty of help. The biggest help came from the ability to view source on any web page—the web was a teacher of itself. I also got plenty of help from people who generously shared their knowledge and experience. There was Jeffrey’s Ask Dr. Web, Steve Champeon’s WebDesign-L mailing list, and Jeff Veen’s articles on Webmonkey. Years later, I was able to meet those people. That was a real privilege.
I’ve known Jeff for over a decade now. He’s gone from Adaptive Path to Google to TypeKit to Adobe to True Ventures, and it’s always fascinating to catch up with him and get his perspective on life, the universe, and everything.
He started up a podcast called Presentable about a year ago. It’s worth having a dig through the archives to have a listen to his chats with people like Andy, Jason, Anna, and Jessica. I was honoured when Jeff asked me to be on the show.
We ended up having a really good chat. It’s out now as Episode 25: The Tenuous Resilience of the Open Web. I really enjoyed having a good ol’ natter, and I hope you might enjoy listening to it.
‘Sfunny, but I feel like a few unplanned themes came up a few times. We ended up talking about art, but also about the scientific aspects of design. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the title of Jeff’s classic book, The Art and Science of Web Design.
We also talked about my most recent book, Resilient Web Design, and that’s when I noticed another theme. When discussing the web-first nature of publishing the book, I described the web version as the canonical version and all the other formats as copies that were generated from that. That sounds a lot like how I describe the indie web—something else we discussed—where you have the canonical instance on your own site but share copies on social networks: Publish on Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere—POSSE.
We also talked about technologies, and it’s entirely possible that we sound like two old codgers on the front porch haranguing those damn kids on the lawn. You can be the judge of that. The audio is available for your huffduffing pleasure. If you enjoy listening to it half as much as I enjoyed doing it, then I enjoyed it twice as much as you.
Monday, June 5th, 2017
eLife goes live
The World Wide Web was forged in the crucible of science. Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research, a remarkable place where the pursuit of knowledge—rather than the pursuit of profit—is the driving force.
I often wonder whether the web as we know it—an open, decentralised system—could’ve been born anywhere else. These days it’s easy to focus on the success stories of the web in the worlds of commerce and social networking, but I still find there’s something that really “clicks” with the web and the science (Zooniverse being a classic example).
At Clearleft we’ve been lucky enough to work on science-driven projects like the Wellcome Library and the Wellcome Trust. It’s incredibly rewarding to work on projects where the bottom line is measured in knowledge-sharing rather than moolah. So when we were approached by eLife to help them with an upcoming redesign, we jumped at the chance.
We usually help organisations through our expertise in user-centred design, but in this case the design and UX were already in hand. The challenge was in the implementation. The team at eLife knew that they wanted a modular pattern library to keep their front-end components documented and easily reusable. Given Clearleft’s extensive experience with building pattern libraries, this was a match made in heaven (or whatever the scientific non-theistic equivalent of heaven is).
A group of us travelled up from Brighton to Cambridge to kick things off with a workshop. Before diving into code, it was important to set out the aims for the redesign, and figure out how a pattern library could best support those aims.
Right away, I was struck by the great working relationship between design and front-end development within eLife—there was a great collaborative spirit to the endeavour.
Some goals for the redesign soon emerged:
- Promote the HTML reading experience as a 1st choice for readers.
- Align the online experience with the eLife visual identity.
That led to some design principles:
- Focus on content not site furniture.
- Remove visual clutter and provide no more than the user needs at any stage of the experience.
- Aid discovery of value added content beyond the manuscript.
Those design principles then informed the front-end development process. Together we came up with a priority of concerns:
- Taking advantage of browser capabilities
- Visual appeal
It’s interesting that maintainability was such a high priority that it superseded even performance, but we also proposed a hypothesis at the same time:
Maintainability doesn’t negatively impact performance.
The combination of the design principles and priorities led us to formulate approaches that could be used throughout the project:
- Progressive enhancement.
- Small-screen first responsive images.
- Only add libraries as needed.
Then we dived into the tech stack: build tools, version control approaches, and naming methodologies. BEM was the winner there.
None of those decisions were set in stone, but they really helped to build a solid foundation for the work ahead. Graham camped out in Cambridge for a while, embedding himself in the team there as they began the process of identifying, naming, and building the components.
The work continued after Clearleft’s involvement wrapped up, and I’m happy to say that it all paid off. The new eLife site has just gone live. It’s looking—and performing—beautifully.
What a great combination: the best of the web and the best of science!
eLife is a non-profit organisation inspired by research funders and led by scientists. Our mission is to help scientists accelerate discovery by operating a platform for research communication that encourages and recognises the most responsible behaviours in science.
Sunday, June 4th, 2017
When I was in Düsseldorf for this year’s excellent Beyond Tellerrand conference, I had the pleasure of meeting Nadieh Bremer, data visualisation designer extraordinaire. I asked her a question which is probably the equivalent of asking a chef what their favourite food is: “what’s your favourite piece of data visualisation?”
There are plenty of popular answers to this question—the Minard map, Jon Snow’s cholera map—but we had just been chatting about Nadieh’s previous life in astronomy, so one answer popped immediately to mind: the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.
I remember when I was first recommended to read Kim Stanley Robinson. I was chatting with Jon Tan about science fiction, and I was bemoaning the fact that dystopias seem to be the default setting. Asking "what’s the worst that could happen?" is the over-riding pre-occupation of most sci-fi. Black Mirror is the perfect example of this. Mind you, that’s probably why the ambiguous San Junipero is one of my favourites—utopia? dystopia? dystutopia? You decide.
Anyway, Jon told me I should check out Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias; one book describes a dystopia, one book describes a utopia, and the other—his debut, The Wild Shore—is more ambiguous. I liked the sound of that, but I decided that if I were going to read Kim Stanley Robinson, I should start with his most famous work, the Mars trilogy.
So I read Red Mars. I liked it, but I found it tough going. It’s not exactly a light read. I still haven’t read Green Mars or Blue Mars, though I plan to. I can see why Red Mars is regarded as a classic of hard sci-fi, but it left me somewhat cold. Jessica read The Years of Rice and Salt and had a similar reaction—good premise, thoroughly researched, but tough going.
When I heard about 2312, I couldn’t resist its promise of a jaunt around the solar system. Again, I enjoyed it, but the plot—such as it was—didn’t grab me. I loved the ideas presented in the book. Heck, it inspired one of my Science Hack Day projects. Still, I found that its literary conceit wasn’t enough to carry the book—a character from Saturn who’s saturnian in nature meets a character from Mercury who’s mercurial in nature.
So I was kind of bracing myself for Aurora. Again, the subject matter really appealed to me. I’m a sucker for generation starships. Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop was a fun read, although in typical Aldiss style, it was weird to the point of psychedelia (even if it looks positively tame next to the batshit crazy world of Hothouse). I was looking forward to reading Robinson’s hard science take on the space ark idea, but I was worried about how much of a slog the writing might be. I read some reviews and listened to some podcasts, and my heart sank when I heard about how the story is partly told by the ship’s AI, who is simultaneously trying to work out how to tell a story. It sounded just like one of those ideas that would be fine for a brief period, but which I could imagine Kim Stanley Robinson dragging out for hundreds of page.
Imagine my surprise when Aurora turned out to be an absolute pleasure. Not only does it have the thoroughly-researched hard science angle of Robinson’s other books, it’s also a rip-roaring tale, in my opinion. I had read of misgivings with the structure of the book—complaints that the story climaxes before the book is halfway done—but I think that misses the point of the story. This is not your typical tale of colonisation. Far from it. Kim Stanley Robinson is quite open about the underlying idea here, that there are certain endeavours that are simply beyond our capacity.
I know that sounds like a very pessimistic view, but I found the book to be a real testament to human ingenuity. But it certainly ruffled quite a few feathers. Like I said, the default setting for most sci-fi is to go negative, but for a sci-fi writer to claim outright that something cannot be done is audacious, and flies in the face of sci-fi tradition.
Gregory Benford wrote a review over on one of my favourite blogs, Centauri Dreams. He takes Robinson to task for stacking the deck against the crew of the ship in Aurora—an inversion of the usual deus ex machina plot devices. I find that criticism puzzling when another review, also on Centauri Dreams, by Stephen Baxter, James Benford and Joseph Miller, takes the book to task for being scientifically naïve.
For me, Aurora was perfectly balanced. It simultaneously captured the wonder of scientific exploration and our own insignificance in the universe. Best of all, it featured central characters that I was utterly invested in—one human, and one artificial. Given my previous experiences with Kim Stanley Robinson books, that was perhaps its greatest achievement. Whereas I might have previously recommended something like 2312, I would have certainly caveated the recommendation. But I wholeheartedly recommend Aurora. It’s easily the best Kim Stanley Robinson book I’ve read so far, and one of the finest science fiction books of recent years. It makes a great companion piece to Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves—not only are they both dealing with space arks, they’ve also got some in-depth descriptions of angular momentum in action, and they’re both thoroughly enjoyable stories that stretch beyond a single human lifespan.
I’m looking forward to digging back through Kim Stanley Robinson’s back catalogue, and I’m very intrigued by his newest book, New York 2140. From listening to his Long Now talk at The Interval, it sounds like the book has as much to say about near-future economics as it does about climate change.
It’s ironic though. Kim Stanley Robinson was first recommended to me because he was one of the few sci-fi writers unafraid to depict a utopia. But his writing never clicked with me until I read Aurora, whose central message sounds like the ultimate downer …that some scientific achievements will forever remain out of reach for humanity.
Sunday, May 7th, 2017
A minority report on artificial intelligence
Want to feel old? Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report was released fifteen years ago.
It casts a long shadow. For a decade after the film’s release, it was referenced at least once at every conference relating to human-computer interaction. Unsurprisingly, most of the focus has been on the technology in the film. The hardware and interfaces in Minority Report came out of a think tank assembled in pre-production. It provided plenty of fodder for technologists to mock and praise in subsequent years: gestural interfaces, autonomous cars, miniature drones, airpods, ubiquitous advertising and surveillance.
At the time of the film’s release, a lot of the discussion centred on picking apart the plot. The discussions had the same tone of time-travel paradoxes, the kind thrown up by films like Looper and Interstellar. But Minority Report isn’t a film about time travel, it’s a film about prediction.
Or rather, the plot is about prediction. The film—like so many great works of cinema—is about seeing. It’s packed with images of eyes, visions, fragments, and reflections.
The theme of prediction was rarely referenced by technologists in the subsequent years. After all, that aspect of the story—as opposed to the gadgets, gizmos, and interfaces—was one rooted in a fantastical conceit; the idea of people with precognitive abilities.
But if you replace that human element with machines, the central conceit starts to look all too plausible. It’s suggested right there in the film:
It helps not to think of them as human.
To which the response is:
No, they’re so much more than that.
Suppose that Agatha, Arthur, and Dashiell weren’t people in a floatation tank, but banks of servers packed with neural nets: the kinds of machines that are already making predictions on trading stocks and shares, traffic flows, mortgage applications …and, yes, crime.
Precogs are pattern recognition filters, that’s all.
Rewatching Minority Report now, it holds up very well indeed. Apart from the misstep of the final ten minutes, it’s a fast-paced twisty noir thriller. For all the attention to detail in its world-building and technology, the idea that may yet prove to be most prescient is the concept of Precrime, introduced in the original Philip K. Dick short story, The Minority Report.
Minority Report works today as a commentary on Artificial Intelligence …which is ironic given that Spielberg directed a film one year earlier ostensibly about A.I.. In truth, that film has little to say about technology …but much to say about humanity.
Like Minority Report, A.I. was very loosely based on an existing short story: Super-Toys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss. It’s a perfectly-crafted short story that is deeply, almost unbearably, sad.
When I had the great privilege of interviewing Brian Aldiss, I tried to convey how much the story affected me.
Jeremy: …the short story is so sad, there’s such an incredible sadness to it that…
Brian: Well it’s psychological, that’s why. But I didn’t think it works as a movie; sadly, I have to say.
At the time of its release, the general consensus was that A.I. was a mess. It’s true. The film is a mess, but I think that, like Minority Report, it’s worth revisiting.
Watching now, A.I. feels like a horror film to me. The horror comes not—as we first suspect—from the artificial intelligence. The horror comes from the humans. I don’t mean the cruelty of the flesh fairs. I’m talking about the cruelty of Monica, who activates David’s unconditional love only to reject it (watching now, both scenes—the activation and the rejection—are equally horrific). Then there’s the cruelty of the people of who created an artificial person capable of deep, never-ending love, without considering the implications.
There is no robot uprising in the film. The machines want only to fulfil their purpose. But by the end of the film, the human race is gone and the descendants of the machines remain. Based on the conduct of humanity that we’re shown, it’s hard to mourn our species’ extinction. For a film that was panned for being overly sentimental, it is a thoroughly bleak assessment of what makes us human.
The question of what makes us human underpins A.I., Minority Report, and the short stories that spawned them. With distance, it gets easier to brush aside the technological trappings and see the bigger questions beneath. As Al Robertson writes, it’s about leaving the future behind:
SF’s most enduring works don’t live on because they accurately predict tomorrow. In fact, technologically speaking they’re very often wrong about it. They stay readable because they think about what change does to people and how we cope with it.
Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017
Science fiction isn’t about technology, it’s about people …and how people change in response to technology.
So ironically, perhaps the only way that any piece of science fiction can be sure that it will remain resonant as the years pass is to make sure that any technical speculation can drop away once it’s no longer relevant. The science will fall back to Earth like an exhausted booster section, tumbling away from the rocket that will one day reach the stars. And then we’ll be left with stories about how people change when change arrives – and that, for me, is what science fiction is.
Monday, May 1st, 2017
The Long Now Foundation has been posting some great stuff on their blog lately. The latest is a look at orreries, clocks, and computers throughout history …and into the future.
Tuesday, April 25th, 2017
Is the emergence of a technologically advanced civilisation necessarily contingent on the easy availability of ancient energy? Is it possible to build an industrialised civilisation without fossil fuels?
This thought experiment leads to some fascinating conclusions.
So, would a society starting over on a planet stripped of its fossil fuel deposits have the chance to progress through its own Industrial Revolution? Or to phrase it another way, what might have happened if, for whatever reason, the Earth had never acquired its extensive underground deposits of coal and oil in the first place? Would our progress necessarily have halted in the 18th century, in a pre-industrial state?
Sunday, April 16th, 2017
This wide-ranging essay by Nick Nielsen on Centauri Dreams has a proposition that resonates with my current talk about evaluating technology:
Science produces knowledge, but technology only selects that knowledge from the scientific enterprise that can be developed for practical uses.
Then there’s this:
The most remarkable feature of how we got from the origins of our species to the complex and sophisticated civilization we have today is that, with few exceptions, none of it was planned. Technology was not planned; civilization was not planned; industrialization was not planned; the internet was not planned.
Saturday, March 11th, 2017
We examine the possibility that Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) originate from the activity of extragalactic civilizations. Our analysis shows that beams used for powering large light sails could yield parameters that are consistent with FRBs.
I’m guessing Paul Gilster may have thoughts on this.
Sunday, February 26th, 2017
Edge of darkness: looking into the black hole at the heart of the Milky Way | Science | The Guardian
Building a planet-sized telescope suggests all sorts of practical difficulties.
Thursday, February 16th, 2017
Churchill, as it turns out, had some pretty solid ideas on SETI.
Churchill was a science enthusiast and advocate, but he also contemplated important scientific questions in the context of human values. Particularly given today’s political landscape, elected leaders should heed Churchill’s example: appoint permanent science advisers and make good use of them.
Saturday, February 4th, 2017
Philip Ball certainly has a way with words.
Wednesday, February 1st, 2017
A gorgeous visualisation of satellites in Earth orbit. Click around to grasp the scale of the network.
Sunday, January 29th, 2017
A proposed syllabus for critical thinking: Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data.
Our aim in this course is to teach you how to think critically about the data and models that constitute evidence in the social and natural sciences.
Monday, January 16th, 2017
Most of these dystopian scenarios are, after all, post-apocalyptic: the bad thing happened, the tension broke, and now so much less is at stake. The anxiety and ambivalence we feel toward late-stage capitalism, income inequality, political corruption, and environmental degradation—acute psychological pandemics in the here and now—are utterly dissolved. In a strange, wicked way, the aftermath feels fine.
Sunday, January 15th, 2017
A 1983 article from 73 Magazine on the surprisingly plausible Rube Goldberg/Heath Robinson device created by E.T. to call home.