Saturday, December 13, 2008


The explosions at the end of Iain M. Banks' Matter are still ringing in my ears. He's getting really good at constructing very clever things. Scratch that, he has been really good for quite some time at telling clever stories, that are much easier to deal with at face value, than to properly think about what's inside. I'm sure it's deliberate.

On the surface, it's a typical Culture space western. The high plains drifter is played by a young woman, of course an Agent of Special Circumstances. And of course, accompanied by a lethal bundle of technology and irony in the shape of the hovering offensive drone. Highly dangerous, and yet supremely moral, they can stop an army of heavily armed knights just by thinking about it (and harassing the column with weapons invisible to pre-technological eyes). They pluck some victims of primitive war from destruction, and shelter them aboard their god-like ships. It's primarily these two who we follow, as they crash around, and with their clever tools and tech, save at least one world from horrid alien interference.

However, it's the worlds in question that deserve a closer look. The wider world of the life-strewn galaxy is painted in, like a Victorian genre picture of a day at the races. All types are there, and some of them are those that you might actually want to meet. But with most of them, you are glad to be back in your armchair on Earth. As with other Culture novels, Banks is at the same time completely cynical (all species are bastards, and the bigger species are sometimes the biggest bastards) and also brightly optimistic (generally speaking, trillions upon trillions of members the want-for-nothing super-species just loll around having delightful egalitarian funny naked sexy lives in their sentient super-homes, causing absolutely no trouble at all).

Another world full of humans is depicted. One tribal faction fights another, through sweat, mud, blood and pain, for supremacy of their part of their backward planet. Most of them are firmly trapped in this bubble of pre-development, and while they might know that there are higher beings, such as the Culture people, out there above them, they also know that they are powerless to reach through the bubble. As we read of their wars, we know that their factionalism is pointless (they are the same species) and their religion is void (their god is a squatter who couldn't care less about them). However, although there is hurt and destruction in their slice of the world, there is, there is at the same time love, hope and honour.

The planet, it is realised, is a Shellworld, a Nautilus-like construction, yes a machine!, of concentric chambers. Dozens of species dwell in the spaces, some walking on earthy sub-surfaces underneath the glow of rolling mechanical sunlets (nuclear? stranger physics?), others flopping in enclosed oceans or floating in endless clouds, others enjoying the vacuum of their compartments. Huge struts or arteries, called Towers, let the action slip, via hermetic doors millions of years old, from one sub-world to another. This in the true spectacle of the book, and the other characters and species dance around it and through it.

The humans are effectively pets of the local alien overlords (there are several to choose from), who happen to be floating, slightly smelly, multilegged and hilariously ungrammatical. The turf war is fought out with carbines, swords and lances, and the occasional mounted creature. The faction having recently discovered steam power (probably informed by the spindly wotists or perhaps the stinky blobules) gains the upper hand, and forges an empire. However, there is bittereness. Not only do thousands die in the wars of occupation, but the rightful king is sneakily deposed by an obviously evil schemer. Our heroes are royal splinters in this struggle (and the SC agent is a sister to them). Meanwhile, the world's systems (naturally, it's got an infinity of software and embedded mechanisms) are being interfered with by who-knows-who, and there are these strange movements of starships. It's a little like a quest to restore Narnia in a far-off galaxy. SC drones play the fauns and forest creatures, and a sentient ship plays an Aslan.

So Hoorah when the protagonists not only restore order, but also intervene to stop the whole concentric world from destruction. And then Aahh, when orphans are all given hearths and homes beneath the peaceful rolling anti-gravity ceiling blobs.

But there's doubt, just as Banks intended I'm sure. Just who controlled who in the chain of rebellion and chaos? Did we really just sympathise with the suicide bomber in service of the primitive monarchy? What was the true function of the mechanical world? Not for living in, that's obvious, and purpose of the colossal mechanisms at its centre remains obscure. Why did the eons-frozen egg/bomb/demon so want to destroy it? Was it lying when it said the Shellworlds were a timebomb, an environmental threat of their own? Perhaps the happy-ending pulled from tragedy is really a disguise for a further sinking into a sea of doom.

Perhaps, as for the humans trapped down in level 8, there is much more above and below than we can reliably process. And if we can do anything about it then fine, but if not, then we may as well enjoy ourselves.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Art in Bed with Science Again

I love artists, but I think they are mad. Too symbolic, not real enough. They think I am mad. Too frakking rational. Most actual scientists think I'm off my head, too symbolic etc, but I digress.

Originally uploaded by satellite investigator
I really love the idea of Artists-in-Residence (even MSSL's got one, but she - orbits seldom intersect - came and went in a week when I wasn't there), and they really should be everywhere. In fact, the general concept of incorporating an outsider is a valuable one, as long as is it isn't embedding for a defined purpose. The photo's from Joanna Griffin (or rather her bits and pieces in Flickr), and it used to be the lab's phone number in the pre-fibre age.

This on the other hand, is snatched from the mouth of Karel Nel, who's got a deep-astronomy inspired exhibition in London now, until 9 October '08:

What was it like, visiting observatories?

At the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, some of the world's most powerful telescopes are trained on the powder-black darkness, looking at complexity and eternity. It is awesome and desolate. Even the scientists fall silent in the face of that.

Nature, 2 October 2008

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Review of Pet Porte

Pet Porte is a microchip-reading catflap. In other words, it detects and scans a cat's microchip (which your vet can easily insert), and will only let known cats in. Conversely, unknown cats (with unrecognised or no chips) won't get in. You could call it a biometric passport for cyborg cats.

General view of Pet Porte Cat in box

We were keen early adopters, since we have issues with neighbours' cats coming in and worrying the legitimate residents. Our two, Oscar and Felix, both 12. y.o., were often joined by The Black Cat from Two Doors Down. The happy group also included Zippy from Next Door as well, but she went through the cat flap in the clouds some time ago. TBCfTTD was a pain. He was young (2) and aggressive, and prone to spraying as well as being a chav.

We've tried magnet-sensing catflaps in the past, but they are a waste of time. Your furry friend has to haul a magnet collar around, which is detected by a coil in the sill of the catflap, which jinks open a solenoid and in he gets. All quite good, except that the magnets are quite large, and are lost. That is, removed by the cats, who just wanna be free. To have good time, to party.

So, when the opportunity to refit the doors came up, we decided to get the new door fitted with this miracle of RFID engineering. I'd heard about it after some speculative Googling, after a conversation about an undergraduate's technology/business dissertation. Handy sometimes, the day job.

A normal chip reader is hand-held if a bit clunky – I'm old enough to think Psion Organiser II when I see one – and in use it is waved across the neck of the animal to excite the chip and detect its response code (a moderately long integer). It's quite simple, and there's no encryption or anything. The manufacturers of the chips evidently collaborate to establish a system whereby all the codes are unique (otherwise what's the point?). The chips are used for positively identifying animals, which helps with lost doggy scenarios (chips are back-registered to the owner) and to discourage theft (though I've never seen an animal with a Don't Nick Me I'm Chipped sticker).

The flap-mounted chip reader is a bit clumsier than a hand-held reader. There needs to be a big detection coil with a nice spread-out field of action to catch the chip as it waves by at a random distance and speed, and this needs to be done before the cat, who can't read a manual, tries to get through the door. Consequently, there's a big bit sticking out of the outside of the catflap. Apart from that, the construction is much the same as other solenoid-locked catflaps, like the magnetic ones, slightly more chunky than a completely passive catflap.

We got ours direct from the manufacturers in Jersey. There's a lot that's clearly Version 1.o about the product. To me, it seems over-engineered in some places, and under-developed in others. It's also not that cheap. Do we really need to paw- and moon-shaped lights for example? A single LED could probably have sufficed. It may have been a requirement of the chip reader, but does it absolutely need a power supply? Other locking catflaps seem to make do with a 9 V battery.

Fitting is not different to any other catflap, with the added complication of ensuring that the Porch (the housing that contains the chip-reading antenna coil) is mounted and weatherproof.

With a cooperative cat, linking the reader to the chip is easy. If the cat doesn't have chip, there's a chip-free mode available.

Our cats were well used to catflaps, so this was barely any difference. There seems to be a slight delay before opening, but I think after a day or two most cats will adapt. I guess after a while they will listen for the click of the latch before really pushing.

  • Features: good.
  • Price: fair.
  • Installation: slightly fiddly. Requires a constant power supply, i.e. uses 10 Watts and 1 socket.
  • Other: antenna housing sticks out, this is a bit fragile and sticks out such that it may get struck by human legs and feet.
  • Compatibility with cats behaviour: good (sometimes Oscar wants us to open doors, but that's probably normal).
  • Keeps the Wrong Cats out: certainly.

Overall, a success.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Felix remembered

Felix remembered
Originally uploaded by Drift Words


Felix is not gaining great happiness, and indeed is accumulating unhappiness. Although he numbers only one, this equation bothers us highly. What would Jeremy say? He's dead of course, and so are we all eventually.

Sorry to get legalistic and philosophical, but we need air support at times like these. Hand to hand moral battles are tough.

As his carers on Earth, we have certain ultimate powers. We've made a decision, and it is due to be enacted today. Please remember Felix as he was, not as he is now, or whatever he will be hence.