Sunday, 6 September 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

When I heard this book was being released in the US my envy knew no bounds. It was all I could do to restrain myself from spending a small fortune importing a copy. And I didn't even have a work-related jolly I could use as an excuse to visit the US and purchase my very own. Subsequently, as is the way of things when you have mind as small as mine, the undoubted delights of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies got pushed further back in my cerebrum, being overtaken by newer, shinier exciting things.

So, imagine my delight when tearing open my birthday presents a few weeks ago I was confronted by a zombified Georgian Lady. Lets face it, any book that starts with the immortal line 'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains', is gonna rock! Let me tell you, this book does not disappoint!

This modern adaption of Jane Austen's classic by Seth Grahame-Smith remains startlingly faithful to the original text. Grahame-Smith elegantly twists the storyline in a marvel of storytelling. The characters, from the headstrong Elizabeth to the arrogant Mr Darcy or the prattling Mrs Bennett, are exactly as Austen originally wrote them, it just so happens the world in which they inhabit is also populated by the 'sorry stricken' who potter round hunting for more brains and generally causing all kinds of mischief. The way zombies, ninja's, and all manner of other things you'd never expect to see in a Jane Austen novel, are worked into the text is done so with incredible dexterity. For example:

"His misfortunes!" repeated Darcy contemptuously; "Yes, his misfortunes have been great indeed." With this, he swept her feet from beneath her and sprang to his own. Elizabeth was too quick to allow him the advantage, for she was soon upright and swinging the poker at him with renewed vigor.

This book has jumped straight into my must read list. The idea of throwing zombies at a Jane Austen novel is brilliant in it's own right, but when it is done in such a careful and thorough manner the end result is a wonder to behold. Everyone, and I mean everyone, should read this.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Lions Loose in Yorkshire

The other day I came across a brilliant reader's letter in the paper Look Local, published weekly near Sheffield. The said letter quoted an article from 1891 describing the events that occurred when a traveling circus of wild and wonderful beasts had a few problems with the lion's wagon.

Here is the letter transcribed in full:




“The quiet valley in which the hamlet of Wharncliffe Side is situated, was yesterday the scene of a series of exciting incidents. The collection of animals known as Day’s Menagerie was at the Holmfirth Feast during the early part of the week; and on Thursday [May 14th 1891] it set out for the Sheffield Fair. In consequence of a slight mishap on the road, however, they only reached Deepcar, where they remained until early yesterday, when they resumed their journey. Soon after six o’clock in the morning the fourteen vans containing the animals, and a number of camels following on foot, entered Wharncliffe Side. As they were passing down the road there the thread upon the bolts fastening one of the axle arms to the van containing the lions, gave way, and after oscillating for a few seconds, the van rolled over on its side with a loud crash. Fortunately no persons were walking by the side of the van at the time or they would certainly have been crushed to death.

Wallace, Hannibal, and Tyrant, three large lions, which were the occupants of the van, naturally became much alarmed, and one of them tore away the grating, which when the van is in the proper position is on the top. Now that the van had fallen the grating was at the side, and the lion, after removing it, put his head out and made the surrounding hills echo with his roar. The other lions joined in the cry, and were answered by the howls and yells of the bears, tigers, wolves and other animals in the remaining vans. Mr John Daniel Day, one of the proprietors, at once gave the lion a stroke with the butt end of a whip stock, and having by this means prevailed upon him to withdraw his head, he promptly nailed a board over the opening.

It was not long before the inhabitants of the neighbouring houses, and especially the children, gathered round the van, and Police-sergeant Hobson proceeded to the place to render assistance. A number of horses attached to milk carts were passing at the time, and the former, partly in consequence of the roaring of the animals, but chiefly at the sight of the camels, became very restive.

Mrs Wragg of Brightholmelee, was proceeding to Sheffield in her milk cart, when the horse bolted, and she jumped out; and while Sergeant Hobson and a number of other men went to secure the horse, Mr Joseph Wood, whose father bears the same name and keeps a farm at Onesacre, was leading his horse past the place, it broke away upon seeing the camels, and rushed through the crowd, knocking down three girls. It then leaped over a wall into a field, when one of the shafts and most of the harness broke; the cart remaining in the road. The horse was cut but not permanently harmed.

One of the girls was not hurt, but the other two received rather severe injuries. One of the injured children is Clara Micklethwaite, ten years of age, daughter of Benjamin Micklethwaite, a rasp cutter, who lives at Wharncliffe Side. When the horse sprang into the field she was wedged between the cart and the wall. She was rendered insensible, but recovered consciousness upon being taken home. The name of the other girl is Alice Hawley. She is eleven years of age and is the daughter of Arthur Hawley, who lives at Wharncliffe Side and is employed at the paper mill there. She was knocked down by the horse, but fortunately the wheels of the cart did not pass over her.

Both girls were attended by an assistant of Mr. Browning, surgeon, Oughtibridge, who found them suffering from bruises, but neither of them had sustained broken bones. Micklethwaite also suffers from internal injuries, but it is not expected that they will terminate fatally. About four years ago Hawley was an inmate of the Infirmary in consequence of her having received a very severe kick in the face from a horse.

Another horse which took fright at the camels was that of Mr [John?] Walker, of Eaton House, near Brightholmelee, but no accident resulted. After some difficulty Mr Wood’s horse was caught, and by borrowing another cart he was able to complete his journey. Meanwhile the services of Mr. Thomas Walker, the village blacksmith had been obtained for the purpose of mending the defective bolts, and he accomplished his task with such promptitude that the menagerie was soon able to proceed, and the Sheffield Fair Ground was reached without further mishap”.

I love the idea of a circus of wild beasts traveling round Yorkshire from one country fair to the next. To us, today, the thought of seeing lions and tigers in the flesh (well, fur I suppose) might not seem particularly exciting. But, to people in the late 19th Century, who didn't have the constant exposure to such things that TV and the internet grants us, this would have been an incredible sight. It is easy to see why the local fair became such a central part of rural life.

Furry Little Friend...

Rather random (and short) post this one, but was so pleased with the end result I just had to.

For months now, my parents have been telling me about this little field mouse that comes and eats bird seed from a feeder near their back door every morning. So, this morning, having an hour or so to kill, I camped out with my camera...

Isn't he/she just adorable!

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Blood: The Last Vampire

Last night I went to see the newly released film Blood: The Last Vampire. A live action adaptation of the original anime short of the same name from 2000.

This is the latest in a series of reimaginings, sequels, and adaptations that have emerged since the award winning original. These have been of mixed quality: the manga sequel Blood: The Last Vampire 2000 (or 2002 as it was for the Western release) was pretty darn dreadful; while the anime reimagining, Blood+, was a truly breathtaking success. Part of the problem for this stream of additions to the fanchise is living up to the masterpiece that was the original. Although short, and not having a particularly challenging storyline, it mixes a gloriously captivating kernel idea with intreguing characters and mesmerisingly beautiful animation. I was blown away for the entire 48 minutes of runtime the first time I saw it (and have been ever since, to be honest).

With this in mind I was naturally quite nervous when I went to see this latest offering. However, I need not have been. Although it can't live up to the originality (by definition it never was) and stunning beauty of the original, it is a thoroughly enjoyable romp of a film that also contributes something meaningful to the franchise. While (as with everything else so far) the storyline won't trouble those little grey cells overly, the action is pretty much non-stop and heavily stylized in a manner that excellently suites the feel of the film. Additionally, for anyone who's watched or read anything else in the series, it also fleshes out some more of the myth behind Blood.

My one gripe would be the CGI, which at times is god awful. In the modern film and TV industries I don't think there is an excuse for having poor CGI. My take has always been; do it good, or don't do it at all. I just wish Chris Nahon would have stuck to that adage.

Otherwise, if you're a fan of the original I think it's well worth seeing. If you haven't seen the original, you could do far worse than choose this as your introduction to the franchise, just make sure you check out the original and Blood+ afterwards.

Friday, 26 June 2009

A Walk Around Britain

I actually stumbled across these guys a while ago, and have been meaning to write some incomprehensible mumblings about them for ages. However, what with the thesis reaching its inevitable conclusion I haven't been doing a great deal of anything except typing furiously into a LaTeX document! Now that the beast is finally finished I have time to waste, so there should be many more comments appearing on this wee collection of random drivel in the near future.

Walk Around Britain is a little jaunt being undertaken by three brave souls: Ed; Will; and Ginger. These three minstral are spending their time hiking around Britain, literarly singing for their supper. The idea, as I understand it, is very simple: to travel the length and breadth of the land with nothing but the clothes in their packs, a good solid walking stick, and an ability to turn a tune.

To quote the men themselves:

'A Walk Around Britain' is not a project, nor a grand plan, or any kind of national event. It is some people who are walking around, and learning in the oldest and most intensive way known, on a simple footbound journey.

The journey started back in 2004 when they followed the Pilgrim's Way from Winchester to Canterbury. Out of this simple exploration of an age-old path that has been trodden by hundreds of thousands of feet, the grander undertaking occupying them today has grown. Starting in February of this year near Canterbury, they have presently covered much of southern England, learning all manner of songs and stories along the way. At present, according to the website, they are in Wales, aiming to spend the summer slowing making their way northwards through the Lake District and Yorkshire, until they finally finish up in Scotland, just in time for winter. The last bit may sound like madness (it certainly doesn't sound like my kind of fun), but they are planning on constructing their very own roundhouse within which they will spend the winter. Then, with the bluebells of springtime, they plan to be up and off again for another year of walking and singing.

I love the idea of this. Particularly from the point of view of the simplicity and freedom of simply wandering wherever your feet take you. So much of our lives today are driven by the tightly controlled schedules imposed upon us, either by ourselves or others, that this freedom to wander is a welcome breath of fresh air, and might serve as a reminder of just how irrelevant the lack of shredded marmalade in the supermarket (or whatever) really is.

I also think there is another, more culturally important part of what Ed, Will, and Ginger are doing. Britain undoubtedly represents a treasure trove of information on the history of the human race. Archaeologists and historians have been able to reconstruct the settlements, industry, and battles from remnants left behind by the people of these islands over more than 3000 years. However, the culture of these people is very poorly understood. With the rapid advance of modern technology (such as this very blog), however, the traditional ways of recording the culture have equally rapidly dwindled away. Hopefully, through the book(s), cd(s), and other chronicles of their adventures, at least a part of this cultural record might survive a little bit longer.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009


Today a very good article was published in the Guardian newspaper on this most emotive of subjects.

The Climate Engineers - John Shepherd

Personally I'm not a big fan of the idea of geoengineering. A lot of the ideas being bounced around (such as carbon sequestration) are short term fixes to what is clearly a long term problem. Equally, a lot of these methods are likely to have side effects that we don't fully understand, since the vast majority of them involve manipulating extremely complex ecosystems (e.g., ocean fertilization). If there is one thing we really have to learn is that we cannot mess with existing ecologies and expect to get away with it scot free. For example, look at the way Austalia and New Zealand have been forever changed by the introduction of European species by western settlers.

Although John's article does not go into the particulars of the subject, it is encouraging to know that the Royal Society has decided to do something about this. It is also encouraging to hear that John will be chairing the committee. Although I cannot claim to know him well, our paths have crossed several times and he has always come across as an extremely clever and very level headed. Just what the doctor ordered!

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The End of Mr Y

In this superb bookScarlett Thomas throws together the concepts of modern scientific thinking and physiological reasoning regarding consciousness into a thoroughly gripping yarn. To describe it simply as a novel is doing Thomas a great disservice. In truth it is really a very clever thought experiment in the classical sense of Schrodinger or Maxwell, all nicely encased in a fast-paced, entertaining adventure story. Although there are a number of reviews out there(e.g., bookslut or Katrina), here's my two penneth.

The story follows disillusioned Ph.D student Ariel Manto. Her supervisor vanished some 12 months prior to the begging of the tale, and as we begin her University is falling down. Through a series of strange events she ends up finding a very rare copy of the book 'The End of Mr Y' by Thomas Lumas, a supposedly cursed text of which there are only a couple of copies known to exist. Contained within this valuable work is the recipe to make a drug which allows one to access the Troposphere, a extra set of dimensions where all consciousnesses interact. Obviously, being the plucky young heroine in a modern adventure novel, she goes straight out to get the necessary ingredients and have a go herself. Needless to say, all hell breaks loose and and we're led on a merry old romp.

Although the basic skeleton of the story isn't something insanely creative and new, the concepts Thomas discusses along the way are what make it. Some pretty complex and very thought provoking issues are introduced, all in a manner that leaves the reader interested and wanting to know more. Somehow, Thomas manages to strike the perfect balance between being complex and engaging, without also being confusing.

The basic idea revolves around the principle that thought (i.e., consciousness) is matter, thereby enabling consciousness to take the form of a higher dimensional space. This Troposphere therefore allows you to gain access to other peoples mind and their memories. In principle, the statement that thought =  matter is true, thoughts can be observed as increased electrical activity within the brain. For me, how this ties with an extra 'consciousness' dimension is probably a step too far. But, one idea Thomas discusses along the way, is the belief that consciousness evolves in a similar way to physical traits.

This I find immensely emotive. As is pointed out, under this principle there is nothing to stop machines developing consciousness, indeed it could be thought of as being unavoidable. So, HAL or Skynet mightn't be that far off!

In conclusion, The End of Mr Y is a great book, and doesn't feel anywhere near the 506 pages in length it is. If you have an interest in the philosophical sciences then you'll find it extremely engaging, and well worth curling up with one sunny spring afternoon.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Nyquist and sampling

Due to one thing and another (mostly the one thing commonly referred to as my thesis, although I have some more personal terms for it), I haven't found the time to keep this little corner of the blog-o-sphere up to date lately. However, the blighter is just about finished (the light is most definitely in sight), which means normal service should be resumed in the near future.

In the mean time, there are a couple of things of late that have caught my attention, causing my little grey cells of curiosity to spark into life. So, with luck, I hope to take up some of the time off I'm allowing myself over Easter (ssh, don't tell the supervisors) to catch up on a little bit of blogging.

First amongst the musings I wanted to talk about is a few thoughts I had whilst looking up some information on Harry Nyquist. Anyone who has studied physics, maths, or engineering of some description must has come across him and his famous Nyquist Theorem (although, properly it should probably be called the Nyquist-Shannon Theorem).

For anyone who hasn't come across this particular idea, it is one of the fundamental principles of Information Theory (something which Nyquist and Shannon both contributed heavily toward developing). Regardless of whether you've ever studied this subject at all, it will have played a huge part in your life. Information theory is fundamental to the way the all those electronic gizmos (from the telephone to the computer and the microwave) we have got so used having loitering around the place. The fundamental principles of information theory are what govern the way the information is communicated, both within a electronic system (e.g., signals between the CPU and graphics card in your computer), and between them (e.g., telephone signals). While subtle nuances in the theory allows this information to be transferred faster and more efficiently, therefore making your computer or tv work faster and better.

At the core of this is something called Sampling Theorem; i.e., the Nyquist-Shannon Theorem. This basically covers the way analogue signals are translated into digital ones (and vice versa). This is easiest explained if we consider an example, say music. Lets consider we're sat in a quiet room strumming a guitar. The sound produced by the guitar spreads out through the room as a series of pressure waves. If we were to think about how these pressure waves are heard by a human ear, we would get a continuous line of varying amplitude; an analogue signal (see figure below).

However, if we want to record this sound so we can replay it on a computer we have to digitize it. Computers can't store analogue signals since they, by definition, have an infinite number of amplitude values. Thus, analogue signals are digitized, which means we describe the analogue signal as a series of amplitude values (see figure above). Thus, the sound of the guitar becomes a series of numbers that represent the amplitude of the sound (pressure wave) at a moment in time.

This digitization of the analogue signal is where the sampling theorem comes in. We have all got music stored on our computers which we can listen to. In order for this to sound the same as if were were sat in the same room as the real instruments playing, the sound has to be sampled at short enough time steps so as to convince the human ear that it is not a series of descrete samples. Basically, it's the same way as animations work. An animation consists on c. 30 individual drawings which are flashed onto the screen every second. The human eye can't tell the difference between them, and so is tricked into thinking it is a moving picture. With the digitization of the sound from our guitar, we're doing exactly the same process.

Every electrical gadget in your home works with these digital signals. What the Nyquist-Shannon Theorem describes, is the minimum time step at which a signal has to be sampled in order to convey a certain set of information. Engineers, mathematicians, and Physicists think of this information in terms of it's frequency, which is what the theorem describes; the Nyquist Frequency.

I deal with the Nyquist theorem pretty much every day as it also plays a fundamental part in signal processing, which is essentially what I do. However, what I didn't know was just how successful Nyquist and his colleagues at AT&T Bell Labs who pioneered information theory (amongst other things) were. The total of 11 researchers won 6 Nobel prizes between them! That is an incredible success rate, and probably one which will never be replicated anywhere else. Kinda puts into perspective everything us little people are struggling with!

Sunday, 8 March 2009


Last night I went to see Watchmen. Zack Snyder's movie adaptation of the highly acclaimed graphic novel written by Alan Moore...and I wasn't disappointed!

I have to admit, when I first heard that a movie adaptation was actually in the process of being filmed (afterall, Hollywood have been trying to do this since pretty much straight after the comics were released), I was more than a bit worried. Watchmen, the novel, is a classic. A piece of Sci-Fi/Fantasy literature that, for me, ranks right up there with anything H.G. Wells, Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, or any one of other masters that have graced the genre have produced. In fact, being completely honest, I think it ranks right up there with any literature of any genre. So, any movie adaptation had very, very big boots to fill even without the lead weight of also being a comic book adaptation, which, lets face it, doesn't tend to bode particularly well.

However, despite all the potential pitfalls, for me it lived up to the billing amply. The cinematography was everything one comes to expect from Snyder (e.g., 300), a compelling mix of breathtakingly panoramic drama and brutal close-ups, but done such that it doesn't dominate the storyline. The casting was perfect with very strong performances all round, although I have to tip Jackie Haley as Rorschach who gave a perfectly pitched mix of madness and heroism. The score was tremendous, right from the off as Bob Dylan's gravelly voice kicked the movie into gear it again hit the difficult balance between dominating the movie whilst also being noticeable and adding a sense of atmosphere.

Most importantly, though, it managed to do justice to a complex storyline of a dozen or more subplots all working on a multitude of different levels. Some details have been cut (and the ending has been tweaked slightly), but none of this is critical. The same driving force behind the story is there, the same subtle poking and prying into the various characters and their morals, the same dark commentary on human society. Somehow it all comes through, along with a bucket load of other brilliant little details and nods to other things (such as Niel Armstrong's fictitious 'Good luck Mr Gorsky' quote).

Some of the ultimate fan boys will complain about how this scene or that scene has been cut. Others will complain about how long it is. But, when all is said and done, the story and characters are still there in all their dark and miserable glory, and 2 hours 40 minutes is not really that long to have to sit still! So, my advice is that, if you're a fan of the comic it's a must, but even if you're not you should give it a go (I went with some people who haven't ready the book and they said it was fine to follow).

It's big, it's bold, it's brutal, and it's bl**dy brilliant!

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Science communication

Following on from yesterday's banter, I thought I'd say a bit more on the communication between scientists and the general populace.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to hear a talk given by Michael Jones, Chief Technical Officer at Google and one of the brains behind GoogleEarth, GoogleMaps, and GoogleScholar. His talk was titled 'The Spread of Scientific Knowledge from the Royal Society to GoogleEarth and Beyond', and presented a whistle-stop tour of how the communication of science has changed over the past thousand years (he actually started a little bit before the Royal Society).

One of his major driving points was that, when the Royal Society was at its peak, this coincided with a peak in the effective communication of science to the general public. This was because science at that time, rather than being presented as a a paper in one of a few dozen scholarly journals, was presented in the form of lively, open debates that could be attended by anyone. Effectively, data analysis was being done on-the-fly, in a similar manner to the theological debates of Ancient Greece and Rome. As a result, the quality of the science wasn't always of the highest standard, but the communication of ideas between scientists and the public was instant and free-flowing. Today, however, we are at the other extreme. All the analysis is done behind closed doors, with the data kept a closely guarded secret until it is ready for publication in a peer-reviewed academic journal that requires a subscription fee, and is therefore never read by Joe public. As a result, the quality of science being published is extremely high (on average), but very, very little is being filtered through to a non-scientific audience.

One outcome of this is the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of science in the media. There is no wonder the issues surround the LHC occured because most people had never even heard of the Higgs Boson before, much less knew people were looking for it. However, another more sinister result of this poor communication of science is the drop in kids taking science subjects beyond the compulsory level. It's all well and good teaching children about Newton or Maxwell (there is no doubt they are hugely important and what they did for Physics is without parallel), but they can't empathize with a guy who died 300/400 years ago. They can however connect with someone who is alive today, someone who can stand in front of them with a giant tank full of water and mud explaining how beaches are formed, for instance.

Yes, they might not understand the finer details of why this ocean model is better than that ocean model or how you grow cocolithophore cultures in the lab, but if the science is pitched at the right level they can understand why it's important and will be interested. The vast majority of children are, by nature, interested in just about everything as long as it appears relevant.

Michael Jones argued quite strongly that we should actively be trying to move toward the middle ground. Finding some kind of status quo where the peer-reviewed system can be used to maintain high standards of science, but whilst also effectively communicating recent developments to a wider audience. I couldn't agree more.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Hunter S Thompson

'Too weird to live, too rare to die,'
Hunter Stockton Thompson (1937-2005)

On Saturday I welcomed in the New Year by going to watch the film '
Gonzo: The life and works of Dr Hunter S. Thompson'. This new documentary by Academy Award and Emmy winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, is a humorous and thought-provoking ride into the mind of one the most iconic journalists and writers of the 20th century.

Concentrating mainly on his most productive and, arguably, most influencial early career throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, it follows his development from a bit-part, freelance writer riding round California with Outlaw motorcycle gangs, through into becoming the most notorious journalist of his era (probably any era), punching, tearing, and slicing chunks off any authoritarian figure who dared stand in his way. One of my favorite parts of the documentary was Thompson's reply to a TV interviewer asking about the comments made in his 1972 Rolling Stone article that Senator Edmund Muskie was hooked on the obscure drug Ibogaine:

'I said there was a rumour going round Milwaukee, and I should know. I started it!'

Given my most recent post (Social detritus) on journalists stretching the truth, it may appear somewhat contradictory to now be applauding Thompson for driving a wrecking ball through someone's campaign just because he didn't like him. However, this is where I think there is a big distinction between Social Journalism and Science Journalism.

In the former, facts and figure are considerably hazier, being largely governed by one's own social and economic view point. So, when covering events such as political campaigns and policies, it is important for all the different view points to get aired because what is good for one social group will invariably be bad for another. In this manner, having journalists who are willing to take a stand against things they don't believe in (such as Thompson did against the Vietnam War) are an important way of balancing the status quo, otherwise the politicians (who represent a very small portion of the overall social demographic) would have far too an easy time of it, and we would likely see policies favorably cantered toward their peers.

With the latter, facts and figures are considerably less hazy. Indeed, one could quite easily argue the opposite, that, in fact, there is too much information out there at the moment as the number of peer reviewed journal swell in ranks, each demanding larger wads of money from increasingly cash-strapped academic libraries. The main problem with this area of journalism is that the increasing trend towards sensationalism has lead to several radical theories that do not represent the consensus of scientific opinion (e.g., The Day After Tomorrow) getting blown completely out of proportion, and/or articles completely misunderstanding the fundamental science (e.g., LHC).

However, I think that, given the times in which we live, it is unfair to point the finger solely at journalists saying that they should use one approach for one type of article, and a completely different approach for another. That bold articles standing proudly in the face of authority should be confined to only certain subjects. A good proportion of the blame for the public misunderstanding of science is the poor communication skills of most scientists. Lets face it, we are terrible at explaining what the hell we do all day - even to each other!