Nov 17 2014


A couple of days ago everyone on twitter (and off) was very excited: ESA landed a probe called Philae on a comet shaped like a duck. I was going to write about the appropriateness or otherwise of ESA project scientist  Matt Taylor’s shirt – it featured quite a few scantily-clad ladies.

On the face of it the story should have been: man wears offensive shirt on TV, people point out that it’s offensive, man removes shirt, man apologises. That is what happened, Matt Taylor seems a nice enough chap who made a mistake which he rectified and gave, what I’d consider, a proper apology.

The moment has passed, better writers than me have written a lot about the incident, but it has highlighted a theme.

The women that said the shirt was offensive received a torrent of abuse, including threats of sexual violence, and the men who did exactly the same thing didn’t. Friends on twitter did experiments where one (male) tweeted exactly the same thing as his (female) partner and got completely different responses: immediate abuse, continuing over 48 hours in the case of the woman, very little for the man. I’ve been moderately vocal and received pretty much nothing in terms of abuse, certainly in the first instance. It’s all very well saying that people should report abuse then move on, or that the threats are empty. But overwhelmingly it is women being threatened, not men. Twitter’s reporting mechanisms are restrictive and they appear unconcerned. And a threat is empty until it isn’t, and then it’s too late.

Several women I know simply don’t comment on “contentious” issues online because they know what response they’ll get. And this happens again and again and again and again and again and again.

Over the last few years on twitter I’ve come to realise that women lead different lives to me, they experience a whole bunch of things that I’ve never even contemplated as a risk. Since I joined I’ve learnt of:

  • the woman stuck in a pub toilet with men outside threatening to gang rape her;
  • the woman who cycles to work in London who gets groped and catcalled on a regular basis;
  • the women who never finished their PhDs because their male supervisors considered them to be sexual prey;
  • the women in science communication who were never quite sure whether whether they were published on merit or because the editor of that website had designs on them;
  • the women who don’t go on scientific field trips because basically they are too dangerous;
  • the women at conferences who think carefully about getting into a lift alone with a man;
  • the woman that won’t walk along the canal towpath in broad daylight;
  • the woman who wants her named removed from a football ground if they re-employ a convicted and unrepentant rapist and gets rape threats in return;
  • the woman who was sexually assaulted on a train;
  • the women who said it would be nice to have women on banknotes, and were threatened with rape;
  • the woman who supported immigration on Question Time and received abuse, and a bomb threat;
  • the woman who was going to give a talk about the portrayal of women in computer games but was cancelled because of the death threats made against her and the audience;
  • the woman who has suffered domestic violence;
  • the women who were groped by a senior party official, who never showed any remorse when uncovered;
  • the women who doesn’t wear headphones in the street;
  • the woman who gets followed on the London Underground;

Some of these are high profile public incidents, others are not but they are all women doing ordinary, unexceptional things. They’re spread over a number of years, and I follow a fair number of people. But nevertheless, regardless of public statistics, they are something that never impinged on me in the past.

I didn’t like the term feminist because it always brought to mind those women that told me everything men did was wrong but now I realise I was wrong. The feminists are the people that speak up and say “That thing you are doing is wrong“, the women in that group are attacked mercilessly in a way the men aren’t. I allowed my impressions of those women to be dominated by their attackers.

Apologies for being so slow on the uptake, I’m trying to do better in future.

Nov 15 2014

Landing on a comet

There was a striking contrast in the office on Friday between the former practicing scientists and the developers, with an open data background, who were bemoaning the slowness with which results were being reported by the ESA team looking after the Rosetta orbiter and the Philae lander.

As I pointed out, many years ago I sat in an instrument hutch at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory trying to work out what the hell was going on with my experiment downstairs, behind an interlocked door, being flooded with a beam of invisible neutrons. It was possible that I was discovering new and important science. But on the other hand it was also possible that the goniometer third from the left on my sample changer was up to its usual tricks and had failed to move when instructed. We couldn’t tell from the frankly inadequate early nineties video feed. The only way to find out was to wait for the experiment to finish and go and eyeball the damn thing.

Goniometer number 3 had failed, again.

Peter, who did his PhD at CERN, replied – “what he said!”

Oct 27 2014

Asus T100 Transformer

t100_edition_10sI’ve gone and bought another toy!

The Asus T100 Transformer is a full Windows 8.1 machine in a 10" form factor which will "transform" from a dinky notebook format to a freestanding tablet – all of the gubbins are in the display. I paid £309 for the 32GB 2014 model which has a slightly more powerful processor than the 2013 model.

The T100 really is a proper Windows 8.1 machine, only tiny. It includes Microsoft Office which works just as you would expect, and I installed Python(x,y) which is a moderate size install which I’d expect to fail on a system which wasn’t genuine, full Windows. I’ve also installed Picasa, my favourite photo collection software and that just works too.

The performance is pretty good for such a small package, things got a bit laggy when I ran a 1920×1080 display over the mini-HDMI port but not unusably so and that seemed to be more a display drive problem than a processor problem.

The modern OS experience differs from what went before, I used my Microsoft ID when setting up, and as if by magic my personal settings appeared on the T100 – including my familiar desktop wallpaper and the few apps I installed from the Windows app store. The same goes for Google Chrome – my default browser – once it knows who you are all your settings appear as if by magic.

I wrote a while back when I got my Sony Vaio that it seemed like Windows 8 was designed for the tablet form factor. And it sort of is. But I have the same feeling moving from my (Android) Nexus 7 to a Windows 8 tablet as I do when I move from a Windows 8 machine to a Mac. The new place is all very nice, and I’m sure I’d settle in eventually but it’s not the same. Windows 8 is still trying to be a desktop OS and a touch OS, and that just doesn’t work very well.

The T100 hardware is OK, the display looks fine and the latch/unlatch mechanism feels sturdy but the keyboard is a bit rattly. I would have liked to have had a more prominent "Windows” button on the display part in the style of an Android tablet. As it is there are three anonymous buttons on the display whose functionality I forget. Attaching and removing the keyboard kept me amused for a good half hour, the mechanism is reassuringly sturdy.

For me this form factor doesn’t really fit. I have a Nexus 7 tablet, which is lighter than the T100 for reading Kindle books on, Chromecasting to the TV (which I can’t do on the T100), browsing the internet or catching up on twitter. I have a Sony Vaio T13 ultrabook which is more useable as a laptop with it’s 13” display but is only a bit heavier. I’ve discovered I don’t need something of intermediate size!

Interestingly I have noted that I hold my 4 inch Nexus phone and 7 inch Nexus tablet at a distance such that their displays seem the same size, to match this feat with the T100 I would need arms like a gibbon! 

I can see the T100 working as a travel system for someone with a chunky laptop or desktop, or as a tablet. It’s nice to have a backup machine for work and home.

I’m intrigued by the idea of installing Ubuntu on this machine, I have it in a virtual machine on my Sony Vaio, the process is described here but it’s a bit fiddly launching Windows and then the VM and the performance isn’t great. I find extensive instructions for installing Ubuntu on the T100 here, they look lengthy!

In summary, impressive to get a Windows laptop in such a small form factor and for such a reasonable price but it doesn’t really fit with my current devices except as a backup.

Oct 23 2014

Book review: Pompeii by Mary Beard

For a change I have been reading about Roman history, in the form of Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town by Mary Beard.

Mary Beard is a Cambridge classicist. I think it helps having seen her on TV, jabbing her figure at a piece of Roman graffiti, explaining what it meant and why it was important with obvious enthusiasm. For me it gave the book a personality.

I imagine I am not unusual in gaining my knowledge of Roman culture via some poorly remembered caricature presented in pre-16 history classes at school and films including the Life of Brian, Gladiator and Up Pompeii.

Pompeii is an ancient Italian town which was covered in a 4-6 metre blanket of ash by an eruption of nearby Vesuvius in 79 AD. Beneath the ash the town was relatively undamaged. It was rediscovered in 1599 but excavations only started in the mid 18th century. These revealed a very well-preserved town including much structure, artwork and the remains of the residents. The bodies of the fallen left voids in the ash which were reconstructed by filling them with plaster.

The book starts with a salutatory reminder that Pompeii wasn’t a town frozen in normal times but one in extremis as it succumbed to a volcanic eruption. We can’t assume that the groups of bodies found or the placement of artefacts represent how they might have been found in normal daily life.

There are chapters on the history of the city, the streets, homes, painting, occupations, administration, various bodily pleasures (food, wine, sex and bathing), entertainment (theatre and gladiators) and temples.

I’ve tended to think of the Roman’s as a homogeneous blob who occupied a chunk of time and space. But this isn’t the case, the pre-Roman history of the town features writing in the Oscan language. The Greek writer Strabo, working in the first century BC wrote about a sequence of inhabitants: Oscans, Etruscans, Pelasgians and then Samnites – who also spoke Oscan.

Much of what we know of Pompeii seems to stem from the graffiti found all about the remains. It would be nice to learn a bit more about this evidence since it seems important, and clearly something different is going on from what we find in modern homes and cities. If I look around homes I know today then none feature graffiti, granted there is much writing on paper but not on the walls.

From the depths of my memory I recall the naming of various rooms in the Roman bath house but it turns out these names may not have been in common usage amongst the Romans. Furthermore, the regimented progression from hottest to coldest bath may also be somewhat fanciful. Something I also didn’t appreciate was that the meanings of some words in ancient Latin are not known, or are uncertain. It’s obvious in retrospect that this might be the case but caveats on such things are rarely heard.

Beard emphasises that there has been a degree of “over-assumption” in the characterisation of the various buildings in Pompeii. For instance on some reckonings there are huge numbers of bars and brothels. So for instance, anything with a counter and some storage jars gets labelled a bar. Anything with phallic imagery gets labelled a brothel, the Pompeiian’s were very fond of phallic imagery. A more conservative treatment brings these numbers down enormously.

I am still mystified by the garum, the fermented fish sauce apparently loved by many, it features moderately in the book since the house of a local manufacturer is one of the better preserved ones, and one which features very explicit links to his trade. It sounds absolutely repulsive.

The degree of preservation in Pompeii is impressive, the scene that struck me most vividly was in The House of Painters at Work. In this case the modern label for the house describes exactly what was going on, other houses are labelled with the names of dignitaries present when a house was uncovered, or after key objects found in the house. It is not known what the inhabitants called the houses, or even the streets. Deliveries seemed to go by proximity to prominent buildings.

I enjoyed Pompeii, the style is readable and it goes to some trouble to explain the uncertainty and subtlety in interpreting ancient remains.

Once again I regret buying a non-fiction book in ebook form, the book has many illustrations including a set of colour plates and I still find it clumsy looking at them in more detail or flicking backwards and forwards in an ereader.

Sep 21 2014

Book review: Falling Upwards by Richard Holmes

fallingupwardsI read Richard Holmes book The Age of Wonder some time ago, in it he made a brief mention of balloons in the 18th century. It pricked my curiosity, so when I saw his book Falling Upwards, all about balloons, I picked it up.

The chapters of Falling Upwards cover a series of key points in the development of ballooning, typically hydrogen balloons from the last couple of decades of the 18th century to the early years of the 20th century. One of the early stories is a flight from my own home city, Chester. Thomas Baldwin recorded his flight in Airopaidia: Containing the Narrative of a Balloon Excursion from Chester, the eighth of September, 1785. The book does not have the air of a rigorous history of ballooning, it introduces technical aspects but not systematically. It is impressionistic to a degree, and as a result a rather pleasant read. For Holmes the artistic and social impact of balloons are as important as the technical.

In the beginning there was some confusion as to the purposes to which a balloon might be put, early suggestions included an aid to fast messengers who would stay on the ground to provide but use a small balloon to give them “10 league boots”, there were similar suggestions for helping heavy goods vehicles.

In practice for much of the period covered balloons were used mainly for entertainment – both for pleasure trips but also aerial displays involving acrobatics and fireworks. Balloons were also used for military surveillance.  Holmes provides chapters on their use in the American Civil War by the Union side (and very marginally by the Confederates). And in the Franco-Prussian war they were used to break the Prussian siege of Paris (or at least bend it). The impression gained though is that they were something like novelty items for surveillance. By the time of the American Civil War in the 1860’s it wasn’t routine or obvious that one must use balloon surveillance, it wasn’t a well established technique. This was likely a limitation of both the balloons themselves and the infrastructure required to get them in the air.

Balloons gave little real utility themselves, except in exceptional circumstances, but they made a link to heavier-than-air flight. They took man into the air, and showed the possibilities but for practical purposes generally didn’t deliver – largely due to their unpredictability. To a large extent you have little control of where you will land in a balloon once you have gone up. Note, for example, that balloons were used to break the Prussian siege of Paris in the outbound direction only. A city the size of Paris is too small a target to hit, even for highly motivated fliers.

Nadar (pseudonym of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), who lived in Paris, was one of the big promoters of just about anything. He fought a copyright battle with his brother over his, adopted, signature. Ballooning was one of his passions, he inspired Jules Verne to starting writing science fiction. His balloon, Le Géant, launched in 1863 was something of a culmination in ballooning – it was enormous – 60 metres high but served little purpose other than to highlight the limitations of the form – as was Nadar’s intent.

From a scientific point of view Falling Upwards covers James Glaisher and Henry Coxwell’s flights in the mid-nineteenth century. I was impressed by Glaisher’s perseverance in taking manual observations at a rate of one every 9 seconds throughout a 90 minute flight. Glaisher had been appointed by the British Association for the Advancement of Science to do his work, he was Superintendent for Meteorology and Magnetism at the Royal Greenwich Observatory. With his pilot Henry Coxwell he made a record-breaking ascent to approximately 8,800 meters in 1862, a flight they were rather lucky to survive. Later in the 19th century other scientists were to start to identify the layers in the atmosphere. Discovering that it is only a thin shell – 5 miles or so thick which is suitable for life.

The final chapter is on the Salomon Andrée’s attempt to reach the North Pole by balloon, as with so many polar stories it ends in cold, lonely, perhaps avoidable death for Andrée and his two colleagues. Their story was discovered when the photos and journals were recovered from White Island in the Artic Circle, some 30 years after they died.

Falling Upwards is a rather conversational history. Once again I’m struck by the long periods for technology to reach fruition. It’s true that from a technology point of view that heavier-than-air flight is very different from ballooning. But it’s difficult to imagine doing the former without the later.

Older posts «