Monday, 29 September 2014

Doctor Who Review: the Caretaker

(Yes, yes: there will be spoilers.)

Oh dear. Another stinker.

This week's episode was about the Doctor and Danny. There was some special effects malarky with what looked like a rich kid's remote-control vacuum cleaner, and a silly story to go with it. The Doctor wanted to lay a trap for the killer Hoover at the one place in the Universe where Clara would be the ideal assistant -- the school she works at -- and he decided instead to give her the day off, and to instead play the comic caretaker. As I say, it was mostly a contorted senseless setup of an officially Antagonistic Relationship.

Assuming that my intention had in fact been to watch a time-travel soap opera, I still would have been unimpressed. The Doctor apparently dislikes Danny because he's a soldier. This makes almost zero sense, because the Doctor has been friends with many soldiers in his time, even since the advent of the apocalyptic plot device of the Time War.

And even if we do accept that the Doctor has some sudden military mania, why did this manifest itself with the clumsy nonsense of the Doctor refusing to believe that Danny was a maths teacher?

And if the excuse was to maintain a Comic Tone, why was said Comic Tone shattered by many minutes of Emotional Dialogue that made Eastenders look like Shakespeare? If I want science fiction soap opera with a comic touch, I can find more emotional depth on an old episode of Red Dwarf.

If the writers think it's a novel idea to have a companion who doesn't get along with the Doctor, there must be a million other more entertaining and more convincing ways to introduce one. Couldn't the Doctor and Danny have clashed over some real difference of opinion on how to deal with the robot vacuum cleaner? Couldn't Danny have screwed up the Doctor's plan in a more definitively objectionable way than just turning up?

One possible reason is that we're supposed to finally appreciate just how alien the Doctor is -- his clashes with Danny are inexplicable because he is inexplicable. But in that case, why is this the first time in all of his incarnations that he has been so alien? We can imagine that this might be explained in some glorious season finale or Christmas Special, but I'm sceptical that I'll suddenly jump up from my seat and cry, "Aha! The writing wasn't creaky and jarring and uneven after all! It's just that he's been zapped by an Internal-Consistency Disturbance Field so strong that it threatens to destroy the entire Universe!"

No, I think the show is just struggling with its historical inability to produce decent male companions.

Usually the companions are strictly female. Back in the 70s, the assumed justification for the Doctor being accompanied across the universe by an attractive young lady was that Seventies British Dad needed something to enjoy on those Saturday nights when he couldn't go down to the pub with his mates and get hammered and blot Seventies Britain from his mind. Seventies Mum never watched Doctor Who -- she was in the kitchen with the dinner, boiling the hell out of it.

But now we are in 21st century Britain, and the whole family contributes equally to dinner, through democratic ordering off the Indian take-out menu. So the occasional male companion is also required. But these fellows seem to do no more than continue the line of dolts who came before them. There hasn't been a decent male companion since Jamie hung out with the Second Doctor [1]. Consider this short and sad list: Harry Sullivan, Adric, Turlough, and Rory. And now Danny.

Just a minute, what about Captain Jack? Everyone loved him. In fact, he was so good that he wasn't allowed to travel regularly with the Doctor, and had to be given his own television show instead.

The other male companion of note (although he rarely travelled with the Doctor) was of course the Brigadier. If ever we need to be reminded with what wit a character can be drawn, and how wonderfully he can endear an audience for decades, then we need look no further than the redoubtable Brigadier -- with every episode of gentle sparring with the Doctor, every roll of his eyes and a cry of, "Doctor, do you really expect me to believe…?", and every time he yearned to dispatch of the latest alien menace with an air strike, we remember what Doctor Who writers could once produce.

Can they do it again? I'm sure they could -- but it's not likely to be with Danny.

Other Doctor Who reviews:
Robot of Sherwood
Time Heist
Kill the Moon
Mummy on the Orient Express
In the Forest of the Night
Dark Water
Death in Heaven

1.  Jamie was a highlander who was plucked briefly from his fight against the English. Jamie, from the past, was excellently paired with Zoe, from the future. The Doctor was kind enough never to allow him the heartbreak of a visit to September 2014.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

A little science lesson -- for me.

During my high school lecture tour perpetuating myths about Galileo, I met a teacher at a school in the remote Far North of New Zealand, who taught me a nice lesson about science.

Actually, he just frustrated the hell out of me, and his memory has been irritating me for the last 17 years, like a mosquito bite on the brain. But now I've worked out how to interpret his maddeningly obstinate confusion as a "teachable moment". I've found some brain ointment.

Over lunch after the lecture, this teacher complained how difficult it was to explain basic physics to his students. For example, the simple concepts of force and acceleration. Even the textbooks got them confused.

I nodded along to everything he said, but the last bit made me suspicious. Exactly how were the textbooks wrong? And which sloppy textbooks was he talking about?

"When you throw a ball in the air, it goes up and then it comes down, right?"

So far, so good. "Uh huh."

"And somewhere in between it stops, right?"

"If you throw it exactly straight up, yes," I said, watching out for the catch.

"So on the way up, there's a force slowing it down. Right?"

"Yes. Gravity."

"And on the way down, there's a force speeding it up?"

"Yes. Gravity again."

After a week of talking about Galileo, and dropping hammers and feathers from the top of a ladder, and about to embark on a PhD studying gravity, I felt I was on especially familiar territory.

"So," he continued, "there's a point in the middle where it's not slowing down, and it's not speeding up. It's stopped. And at that moment there's no force on it. Right?"

Aha! Wrong.

I tried to explain. There were two other physicists travelling with me, and they tried to explain, too. There is a constant force, acting downwards. He wasn't convinced. The arguments got increasingly complicated. At some point we imagined careful video recordings of the experiment, and complex measurement apparatus strapped to the ball, and observers suspended by hot-air balloon at the apex of the ball's flight. None of it helped. Nothing would convince him, and eventually it was time for us to leave.

What was wrong with this guy? Having completely failed to explain one of the most elementary concepts in physics, I have spent years cursing this simpleton teacher with Kauri gum for brains, bumbling about in some hick school in the back of beyond.

But that doesn't wash. The place wasn't that remote! Getting there didn't require three days of treacherous travel by mule through mountain passes. It wasn't like the only book in town was a battered copy of Gone with the Wind. It wasn't Macondo, for God's sake, beset by travelling ice salesmen and run by deranged ex-soldiers and populated by feverish fabulists. A major highway passed through. There was an airport. There was electricity, television and radio, and a public library. You could access the internet. The school certainly possessed the same basic science textbooks as any school in London or New York or, for that matter, my own high school.

And he wasn't stupid. He was very clever -- he countered all of our arguments with inventive and thoughtful reasoning, and was likely equally or more intelligent than many who teach the correct explanation of accelerated motion.

All these years later, I'll make another attempt to clobber this demon from my past, and explain it again. Let's look at some numbers. Imagine that you perform this experiment with a tennis ball, or a peanut, or a brick; any object that you can throw without too much concern for air resistance. (Poor choices include a sheet of paper, a living bug, or a handful of self-raising flour.) You throw your object upwards at 20 metres per second. That's about 70 km/hr, so I suggest you do it outdoors, and I suggest you don't use the brick.

Every second the force of gravity will cause this object's speed to change by 10 m/s. The object is going up, and gravity is directed downwards, so each second the object's speed drops by 10 m/s. It starts at 20 m/s. One second later, it's rising at only 10 m/s. Another second later it's at 0 m/s -- it's stopped. If we look at the speed of the object every second, starting at the moment it was thrown, we have 20, 10, 0, -10, and so on. The force of gravity just keeps doing its thing, in the same way, in the same direction. When we look at it this way, there's nothing very special about the moment when the speed is zero; when the numbers become negative, that means the ball is going down.

And this is where I've finally learned a lesson. If this is clear, it's because we used some numbers. In other words: mathematics. It wasn't very complicated mathematics -- your phone has a calculator app to do the subtraction for you.

The point is that before Galileo the idea of using any mathematics at all was unheard of.

Without mathematics you have to be extremely careful and precise with the words you choose, and you need to make your reasoning especially sharp to distinguish one idea from another, to refine opposing ideas, and to decide between them. Clever people could spend hours, or weeks, or years, or centuries, arguing over this sort of thing and not get it straight. And they did: that's why it wasn't clear until the time of Galileo, and it wasn't until yet hundreds of years later that it was clear enough to be put into a high-school textbook.

There aren't any numbers in Aristotle, or diagrams or equations. Just arguments. One line of flawless reasoning after another -- leading, in the case of motion, to the wrong answer.

There are no experiments, either.

We need mathematics to make even the simplest ideas clear and precise, and we need precise measurements and experiments to test our ideas. Without them we get lost.

If I had tried to argue with that teacher with a few numbers, or a diagram, perhaps I would have been more successful.

He had misunderstood one of the most basic concepts in science, but so had I.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Review of Doctor Who: Time Heist.

This review is full of spoilers, the chief among them being: if you haven't yet watched this episode of Doctor Who, then do it now! It's worth it.

I felt like a grouch, grumbling over the previous four episodes. But now I'm vindicated, because I've seen what a great new Doctor Who story can be. Time Heist could have been from a different show entirely to the previous four stories. But we must remember that television productions are a bit like time travel: before the BBC screened the first four episodes, they knew what episode number five was like. I wonder how that made them feel?

Finally we got a pure adventure. No overarching story. No mysteries from the Doctor's past. No clunky character development, introspection, or attempting to deal with the psychological trauma brought on by too long in the time-space vortex. There was the silly frame of Clara's impending date -- couldn't the Doctor have let her go out while he did his criminal mastermind groundwork, and come back to get her on the weekend? -- but I think we can allow any contortion of the plot to allow a joke like, "Why is your face all coloured in?"

There was a clever puzzle-plot that perfectly resolved itself -- and this time it made sense. A time-travel newbie might quibble over the potential paradox of how Madame Karabraxos could have known the Doctor's phone number to set off the whole chain of events that would have him deliver those dearest digits to her past. But such issues are standard fare, and far less problematic than, say, Back to the Future Part II. If anyone can track down the Doctor's phone number by other means, it's the richest person in the universe.

There were delights at every turn. A new monster, with a charming calling card: not only does he turn his victim's brains to soup (yeah yeah, we've seen that one before), but with the goop drained away, their skulls cave in. A nice touch, and his name was even better, a clever mix of a bank employee and a telepathic killer: The Teller. It could only have been better if the brains literally did turn to soup, and we'd been treated to the sight of the head of security demurely sipping at them as she issued orders.

There were two alien accomplices on the Doctor's heist team, both science-fiction cliches given an extra emotional twist. The shape-shifter who is doomed to be alone, because she freaks out everyone she touches by transforming into their facsimile. And the man with the digital brain, who in a moment of desperation deleted from his memory all of his family and friends. Most shows -- even this show -- would string three episodes out of just one of those characters.

So, with such a fantastic episode that almost (but not quite!) redeems the four that came previously, I'll allow myself one completely innocent, honest question, as a fan who may have missed something in the last decade. Is the Doctor's TARDIS now fixed? It used to be temperamental and unreliable, which was the convenient cause of so many adventures in unexpected places and times, but then would just happen to work perfectly when the Doctor needed to use it to save the day. Now it seems to work fine, all the time. Did it officially stop being unreliable? For all I know, the chameleon circuit is working, too, and the Doctor has just deactivated it for nostalgic reasons. He may even have said as much, and my memory has been wiped.

Other Doctor Who reviews:
Robot of Sherwood
The Caretaker
Kill the Moon
Mummy on the Orient Express
In the Forest of the Night
Dark Water
Death in Heaven

Tuesday, 16 September 2014


When espousing the joys of science to the young, it is wise not to reveal details about actual scientists.

I once made that mistake.

Just before I left New Zealand to start my PhD, I did some outreach work, and lectured high-school students on the dramatic story of Galileo, "the father of modern science".

What could be more inspiring? He realised that mathematics was essential to make scientific theories rigorous, and experiments essential to develop, test, disprove, and improve the theories.

Through the sheer power of his intellect and his desire to understand, he discovered that Aristotle, that great toad croaking at the intellectual heart of all medieval wisdom, was wrong: moving objects don't tend naturally to rest; and if you chuck lead balls of different sizes out of Italian architecture, they all fall at the same rate.

He postulated the Principle of Relativity, that subtle and seemingly innocuous concept that Einstein later wielded to go one better on Galileo's purported successor, Newton.

He was the first to realise that the telescope was more than a Peeping Tom's second tool. He used it to argue that the Earth orbits the sun, not the other way around, as believed by Aristotle, Ptolemy, most other scholars throughout history, and also that jolly institution, the Catholic Church. For his troubles the Church threw this brave visionary into a dark dank dungeon, where he rotted away his last days scribbling on the wall, "And still it moves".

What a perfect story! The kids would love it!

Even in those ignorant times before the invention of Wikipedia, it took me only an hour of background reading to discover that the myth was a tad skewed.

Yes, Galileo was clever and talented, but it was a talent in the service of a boundless ambition and a monstrous ego, and peppered with a true jerk's delight in pissing off as many people as possible.

His motivation wasn't purely to make sense of the universe. He didn't sit in his study and muse, "God has blessed me with a keen intellect. It is my solemn duty to harness it in the cause of wisdom and truth!"

No. He sat in his study and thought, "I need a better job. I need a promotion. I need to be rich and famous. I need all of my enemies to suffer daily at the sight of my unbelievably gratuitous success and brilliance." And then he thought some more: "The only way to do that is to shove that fatuous dumb-ass Aristotle off his pedestal, and get myself up there instead."

So he set about trying to prove Aristotle wrong about something. Anything. "No-one has done it yet," he thought, "but that's because they weren't as smart as me."

What's the difference between a tour-de-force performance of human intellect, invention, and single-minded devotion to discovery, and an egotistical, delusional, self-absorbed descent into madness? The difference is whether you succeed. Galileo succeeded. He proved Aristotle wrong, and he was indeed a hero. The number of people he could now taunt with his brilliance was incredible.

The church persecution turned out to be an exaggeration, too. He wasn't thrown into any dungeon. He was put under house arrest. The house in question was his Tuscan villa. Where he spent the rest of his life getting to feel like a tragic victim of injustice (the ideal state of the egoist), and write at his leisure his greatest book. That's right, fellow academics: no classes to teach, no students to supervise, no grants to write, no committees to sit on. As career trajectories go, you can do worse than a string of revolutionary results followed by a convenient charge of heresy.

The issue behind the charge of heresy was Galileo's support of heliocentrism (the Earth moves around the sun), rather than the Church-supported model of geocentrism (the Earth is fixed at the centre of the universe). But Galileo's problem wasn't that he was a heliocentric. He was an egocentric.

He was friends with the Pope, and was sure that his brilliance and charm could convince God's carefully chosen representative to pass the word up to his Boss that Galileo was right and Aristotle and Ptolemy and all those other old codgers were wrong. He might have managed it, too, but he was also determined to pave the road to the Pope with a thick coating of apoplectic Cardinals. He knew that they were mere idiots and sycophants down to the last man, and there's nothing more fun than making idiots angry. He just forgot that angry idiots can be dangerous.

"Forgot" is something of an understatement. He was so convinced of his invincible genius that when he was asked to write a book summarising the arguments for and against the heliocentric view, he took the Pope's own arguments against it, and put them in the mouth of a character not-so-subtly named "Simplicio", and then mocked the hell out of him. The Cardinals lined up to recite their favourite passages to their master. When Galileo later protested that he didn't realise that this would upset anyone, you can almost imagine that he was so arrogant that he really believed it.

So: what I discovered was that the story of Galileo wasn't as simple, or as pure, as I once thought. What I should also have discovered, but has only just dawned on me, was that he was the model not just for modern science, but for modern hotshot scientists as well. A great talent tethered to boundless ambition? A monstrous ego? A delight in pissing off as many people as possible? Sounds like half of the scientists I know. And next time you put your nose in the air and mock the paper chasers who leap onto the latest hot topic in a desperate search for a headline result -- just remember, they're following in some illustrious footsteps.

Was Galileo really that bad? I've no idea. I haven't pored over Galileo's collected correspondence, or combed through the Vatican archives, or closely questioned leading historians after spending two years in the painstaking company of a 478-work bibliography of Galileo's life, science and times. All I did was skim-read a hastily chosen biography, and replace in my mind the heroic genius myth with the arrogant genius myth. The first myth was a useful inspiration to pursue science, and the second was even more useful in understanding and surviving the scientific world I've scrabbled into.

And finally: just because the heroes of science are often jerks, that doesn't make them any less brilliant. They deserve our respect, even our awe, but they don't deserve to be worshiped as saints.

As for my little Galileo lecture -- it reverted to most of the hero myth. I climbed on a ladder behind a cardboard cut-out of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and dropped a hammer and a feather. They didn't do what Galileo predicted, but then I showed a video of the same experiment being performed by astronauts on the moon. Yes, the smug bastard was right after all. I didn't mention the run-in with the Cardinals and the Pope.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Doctor Who: is anyone listening?

[Spoiler alert: if you haven't already seen the Doctor Who episode "Listen", this review will completely ruin it for you. I'd rather ruin it after you've seen it.]

There are a few welcome innovations in the New Doctor Who (as distinct from the 1963-89 period, which, depending on your tastes, can be distinguished by a preface of "Old", "Original", "Classic", or, quite understandably after last week's episode, "Real"). One new delight is the occasional creepy story. The old stories featured monsters that supposedly sent the children of 60s and 70s Britain hiding behind their tatty post-war sofas, but it was rare that their parents went back there with them.

That has changed with stories like "Empty Child" ("Are you my mummy?") and "Blink". In the case of "Blink", we also had a story with an unusually clever mystery plot: all the pieces of the puzzle clicked into place only at the end. Even the genius of Douglas Adams didn't bring that to the old Who -- "City of Death"'s time-splintered Scaroth, whose piloting ineptitude sparked human evolution, would not be converted into a truly sparkling riddle of a plot until Adams resurrected him in his first Dirk Gently novel. The clever-creepy stories are the highlights of the New Who.

The latest episode, "Listen", was supposed to be one of them. In fact, it tried to top everything that had gone before. Not only did all of the mysteries evaporate in the last five minutes, but the creepy villain along with them. Unquestioning Who devotees may also whoop at a little nugget of detail from the 50th-anniversary "Day of the Doctor" story.

("Day of the Doctor" may be my favourite of all of the new stories. And not just because John Hurt got to endlessly mock David Tennant and Matt Smith as shallow successors of the True Who -- although nothing beats his reaction when they both responded to attack by whipping out their sonic screwdrivers: "What are you going to do, assemble a cabinet at them?" It also managed to handle three different plots, which wove together smoothly, and it contained some clever science-fiction ideas, in particular the mind-wiping device being used to turn enemies into allies because they couldn't remember which was which.)

But back to "Listen". It was a great idea, but it lacked in the execution. In the end the scary ghostly whatever turned out to be a figment of everyone's overactive imagination. Fine. But in that case, the story that we'd watched had to make perfect sense in light of this revelation. Are we really supposed to believe that, after a woman went into little Rupert Pink's room to comfort him after a bad dream, another boy followed them in and climbed onto Rupert's bed and hid under the blanket? Or that the Doctor, who after 30 years of adventures we have been lead to believe is a clever and observant character, was so easily fooled by a prank-making little boy? And don't tell me that the Doctor's powers of observation were blunted by his trauma over a dream he had over a thousand years ago!

We were also given no reasonable explanation for the very definite knocking at the door of the spaceship at the end of the universe, and it doesn't make much sense that the Doctor's very personal nightmare managed to freak out all of the other characters as well. Yes, we've all had nightmares, and we've all been afraid that there might be a monster under the bed. But I for one have never dreamed of the damn thing grabbing my leg, and having revealed the specific cause for the Doctor's molestation anxiety, it's a bit strange that Clara, young Danny, and slightly older Orson all had the same dream.

You may call this picky. You may have thrilled at this triumph of an episode. Good for you. But while it's tedious for an audience to be picky, it's sloppy for the writers not to be. Stephen Moffat has written all of those great scary stories, and he was certainly capable of taking this one and tweaking the wrinkles out of it.

Are the Doctor Who writing team just too high on success to notice any more? Does Moffat bring in his new script, and they all just fawn over it? "It's a gem! It's a winner! It's your best yet! Don't change a single line!" That's not a helpful reaction. Someone should take the good script, pick it to pieces, and put it back together as something incredible. Because with this story that was certainly possible. And while they were at it, they could have chopped out all that motivational slush about fear in the last five minutes. The Doctor gave young Rupert an excellent speech about the power of fear under the watchful eye of Blanket Boy, and there was no need for a rehash during a counselling session moody montage at the episode's end.

Someone on the writing team should be providing some tougher criticism. And someone should be listening.

Other Doctor Who reviews:
Robot of Sherwood
Time Heist
The Caretaker
Kill the Moon
Mummy on the Orient Express
In the Forest of the Night
Dark Water
Death in Heaven

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The science of the future

No-one can predict the future. Every sensible person knows that. Throughout history some very clever people have let their cleverness get the better of them, and have decided that they can discern the future from looking closely at the past and the present -- but they've always been wrong. At least in the case of massive messes of human activities, like economics and geopolitics. Any good scientist knows what's going on here: you have an extremely complex system -- no, many many extremely complex systems -- played out by millions or billions of players (at the very least; don't forget all of the neurons in each of the billions of peoples' brains), and they are interacting in an unknown and almost certainly highly nonlinear way. Of course no-one can predict what's going to happen next.


Maybe not.

On Friday Tim Harford published an article in the Financial Times on a "groundbreaking study" that suggests that it is in fact possible to predict the future.

Before you get too carried away, here are the qualifying statements. The jumping-off point is a 2005 book by Philip Tetlock, "Expert Political Judgement", which collected 18 years of statistics on the accuracy of expert predictions in economics and geopolitics, and concluded that they were, across the board, appalling. If you're spiritually aligned with the opening paragraph above, this will come as no surprise -- but there's a big difference between knowing that something is "obvious", and collecting the data to demonstrate it.

Harford made much of Tetlock's study in his book "Adapt", and it was this I had in mind when I made sure to distinguish between scientific predictions and "expert predictions", or forecasts, in my series of posts on scientific expertise and climate change [1].

Now for the new stuff. Since then Tetlock and others have been running a study called the  Good Judgement Project. The idea is to see if accurate forecasts really are possible, and if people can be trained to make them. And the claim, as reported by Harford, is, Yes, they can. If forecasters focus on specific questions (i.e., not "Will Russia take over Ukraine?" but, "Will Russia take over Ukraine before November 1, 2014?"), and collect continuous feedback on the success of their predictions, and if the most successful forecasters are then organized into teams and their predictions aggregated -- then, they claim, much more accurate forecasts are possible. These teams of "superforecasters", "can predict geopolitical events with an accuracy far outstripping chance."

The article doesn't say what "far outstripping chance" means. No examples are given. I can't find any published results. (Although I have hardly performed a rigorous literature search.) A 45-minute video of Tetlock at provides a little more detail, but again without examples of just what it means to be a superforecaster. On what sorts of questions do they do better than chance, or better than regular "experts"? And what does better mean, statistically?

But let's assume for now that this all holds up and that we really can train people to make political and economic predictions at a level of reliability that was hitherto impossible. Let's ignore silly philosophical objections, like, "Isn't your prediction going to change the outcome?" Let's consider simply the implications of a discovery that the outcome of complex interactions of human populations could be forecast with an accuracy better than random chance.

If this were true, what could be going on? Can this make sense in the complex physical universe we currently understand ourselves to live in?

Here's one way to think that it could.

Human beings with a lamentable ignorance of Newtonian physics can perform extremely well at ball games -- they can calculate trajectories with incredible speed and accuracy. No matter what they may claim, they cannot do this naturally: they learn it through practice. After all this practice they have no more understanding of Newton's laws of motion than when they started, their brains have just extracted a pattern from repeated experience. But just because they don't know the rules behind what they have learnt, the fact that there was a pattern to extract means that some rules must exist.

People could learn how to catch a ball for thousands of years before Newton was born. If people can extract meaningful patterns from political and economic events, then these must also have rules that we could one day learn.

Or another example, which may be better. You can record the sound of a crowd of people talking at a party. If you analyze the sound levels in the room, there is no clear voice: all of the talking together adds up to noise. But the human ear, aided of course by the human brain, can distinguish a familiar voice in that crowd, and listen to what it says. We have been able to do this for thousands of years, but it was only last century, with the appearance of digital recording technology and clever signal processing techniques that we could do the same thing with artificial technology. And now the technology can do it better than us: your phone can recognize a song playing in a noisy bar, before you do.

Just because the laws that govern politics and economics may be largely unknown to us, that doesn't mean they don't exist. On the contrary: if people can be trained to make accurate predictions of these events, then there must be some simple laws behind them. The "superforecasters" don't know what those laws are, but they've picked up the patterns that those laws leave in their wake.

Think of chaos theory. Somewhere between simple linear physical effects, like a collision between two rubber balls, and the effective randomness of billions of those balls rattling around in a box (i.e., the statistical physics of gases), we have complex phenomena that can be described by relatively simple rules: a simple algorithm can generate the shape of a fern leaf.

Chaos theory ultimately did not prove very useful in economics: uncovering the beautiful patterns wasn't the same as predicting what the market would do next week. So, do these new results suggest that there is another idea out there? A whole new branch of statistical analysis or even of physical science, which would allow us to predict what, until now, has been the unpredictable?

Or is it all going to turn out to be a lot of hot air?

With no published results, no data to consider, and no useful expertise in this field, I am not qualified to make a prediction. All I can do is offer the most conservative guess: the probability that superforecasters are a real phenomenon is 0.5. Meaning: I have no idea if they are real.

But it is certainly a fascinating and worthwhile enterprise to try and find out.

1. My climate-change meanderings follow a circuitous route through eight posts. They start here, but the summing up of my main argument is in the last one, here.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Doctor Who: the legend goes meta

I have been an avid Doctor Who fan since I was a teenager. To such an extent that I have pursued a career devoted to understanding the time-tipping power of black holes, which is the secret of the Doctor's time-traveling TARDIS, or so I was told in an article on the "science behind Doctor Who" that I read when I was 16. My loyalty has taken me to such lengths that I have even maneuvered myself into a job researching black holes in the very city where Doctor Who is now produced. This is a level of devotion that I believe entitles me to share a few thoughts on the current adventures of the mighty Time Lord.

As a fan of the original show, you might expect me to be harsh on the new one. I might bemoan the loss of stories that extend over seven episodes. I might wish that the Doctor was still charming and eccentric, instead of leaping and shouting and borderline psychotic. I might complain that the stories are too frenetic, and the explanations of the complex set-ups, delivered in 29 seconds of rapid-fire dialogue at the end of each episode, remind me of a fake spy flashing too fast his fake ID. I might grumble that after all of those years sniggering over the saucy off-screen antics that must surely be going on between the Doctor and his female "companions", I now have to sit through a continuous drawn-out build-up to a relationship that never happens, complete with tears, trauma, and tediousness.

I have decided I won't do that. The regenerated show has decided on the form it wants to take, and I should judge it on its own terms. Fine. The Doctor has a dark past. His companions are all heartbroken over a love that is forever spurned. The stories are fast and fun, except when they are slow and brooding.

Sometimes it has worked. The first Angels story, "Blink", was fantastic: creepy, cleverly plotted, based on a brilliant original idea, and it came equipped naturally with a wonderful emotional twist. The weeping Angels are by far the most memorable and successful of the 21st-century line of villains.

The emotional pull was far more simplistic in the episode on van Gogh, but wow, did it work. After a century of science-fiction time-travel stories of going back in time to meet heroes from the past, and dropping historical figures into the present, nothing has come close to the powerful last minutes of that episode, where van Gogh, convinced that he is a talentless failure, visits an exhibition of his own work at the Musee d'Orsay.

And now we come to the latest series. Peter Capaldi is the new Doctor. Few actors have been so well-known and well-respected at the time they've taken the role. We can hope for great things.

The first two stories were not inspiring, but excuses can be found. The trio of Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax are wheeled in to liven things up while we all get used to the new Doctor. A strong new story, with all new characters and all new villains would have made a more impressive start, but, oh well, these things happen. For the second story there was another attempt of what came across as desperate crowd-pleasing: a Dalek story.

Ok. A nervous start, then a show of the Daleks. Now we've arrived at the third story, and we get to see what the new series is really made of.

Well, let's hope not. It was horrible.

Clara wanted to see Robin Hood. The Doctor pointed out that Robin Hood is made up. But decided to go and find him anyway. Huh? Never mind, let's move on.

They arrive in Sherwood Forrest, and there to meet them is indeed Robin Hood. The Doctor and Mr Hood engage in a sword fight, except that the Doctor uses a large spoon. And wins. I wish I was joking, but I'm not. Anyway, everyone is friends now, except that the Doctor refuses to believe that Robin Hood is real, and decides at the same time to butt egos with him. This comes to a head in a shouting match while they are all locked in a dungeon, in a scene that I can only imagine that the writer dreams of seeing described in glowing reviews as "the clash of two great performers, in two of the greatest roles in history, trading barbs in some of the cleverest dialogue we have heard this year." And there's probably some soft-headed sap out there who really will write that -- but don't believe them. It was a dreary waste of time.

Somewhere in there Clara elicits a confession from the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, aided by her shrewd insight that this story's plot will be a direct re-hash of many others: aliens have crash-landed and are providing the Sheriff with high-tech muscle while they repair their ship. It would have been almost entertaining if she'd prefaced her guesses with, "If my childhood watching Doctor Who has taught me anything…"

And that wouldn't have been out of place, because the final twist in the plot was that, after belaboring the Doctor's disbelief in Mr Hood's veracity for the entire episode, it turns out that Robin Hood is in fact real. He just turned into a legend with the passing of time. And we're then blessed with a little display of meta-fiction, where Robin explains to the Doctor that he too has turned into a legend, and "I'm as real as you are." Do you get it? They're all made up characters together. If Clara had revealed a childhood love of Doctor Who, that would almost have been classy.

If you turned off before the end, and missed how the aliens were defeated, I suggest you make up your own explanation. It's got to be better than the one I saw. The aliens hadn't pillaged quite enough gold to get their ship into orbit. So the Doctor, Clara, and Robin all helped fire at the ship a golden arrow, which gave it just the extra oomph it needed to get into orbit, but not enough to do anything else besides satisfactorily explode.

I suppose deliberately ridiculous plot resolutions are also part of the ethos of the current show. And I fear I'm going to have a lot more opportunities to try and get used to them.

Other Doctor Who reviews:
Time Heist
The Caretaker
Kill the Moon
Mummy on the Orient Express
In the Forest of the Night
Dark Water
Death in Heaven

Also a movie:

Friday, 5 September 2014

Travel musings, travel music (personal, irrelevant)

As an aside...

For the quote completist, here is the source of the title of the last blog post: "Kare Kare", by Crowded House.

Yes, my musical tastes are twenty years out of date. But that's nothing special. Judging from my reaction to the new series of Doctor Who, my television tastes are 50 years out of date. And I know that my reading tastes are 100 years out of date. If someone would pay me full time to catch up on popular culture, maybe I would try a little harder. If the Swedes would be so kind as to offer me a Nobel prize, I could even follow in the footsteps of previous laureates and become a fan of Arcade Fire. For now I dutifully include their songs on playlists, and sometimes I do try hard to listen to them. But usually I press Skip.

A good playlist is important when you're traveling. The atmosphere of "Kare Kare" is ideal at the beginning of a flight. The trick is to disregard all of the flight attendant instructions, and keep your headphones in and the music on during take-off.

Later in the twilight of the flight, when you can't sleep, the perfect source of sympathy is the song "The Bends". Whatever miserable self-pitying meaning you usually attribute to it, at 30,000 feet you know for certain that its real meaning, its very centre, its most resonant lines, are
Alone on an aeroplane
Falling asleep against the window pane
My blood will thicken
That last line is especially useful: it will send you out into the aisle to do some calisthenics, before deep vein thrombosis sets in.

Many people prepare fine playlists for traveling, but most of those who are foolish enough to risk taking checked-in luggage, are also going to forget to prepare a song for that crucial last step: baggage claim.

This is the song you need: "Landed", by Ben Folds. It's perfect if you can manage to put it on about three minutes before your bag appears, then you're sure to stride out into Arrivals in a jaunty fashion.

You can also find the video on YouTube, but in my opinion it's not correct. The video for this song should be four minutes of footage of myself standing at the baggage claim conveyor belt, listening to headphones, nodding along and tapping one foot. Is that too Andy Warhol? I would have thought that's how people believe that most music videos should be. At the end I would collect my bag and walk outside, with only the briefest pause to note that, contrary to the very clear instructions in the song, no-one had arrived to pick me up.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

"Sleep by no means comes too soon"

Apologies for not posting last week.

My complicated summer has been winding towards its end, and last week was especially bewildering. I promise to get back into the business of regular posting as soon as possible, and to start telling the full unbelievable story of what's been going on. For now it's all too befuddling to make sense of: it's taken me all week just to write this excuse for not posting.

The last post saw me back at the very beginning of the summer, on my way to India. Let's continue where I left off, at the end of one leg of the journey, in Dubai.

On the next leg I was determined to sleep. I had a seat by the window, and as soon as I got to it I took the in-flight blanket out of its plastic bag. I arranged it over myself, and over my head as well, to keep out the light. I fastened my seat belt over the blanket, so that I wouldn't be bothered if there was turbulence. That's the kind of seasoned travel professional that I am. Then I sat perfectly still.

After five minutes my feet were uncomfortable on the floor. My neck was uncomfortable propping up my head in a position that has established itself through millions of years of evolution as being suited for any purpose other than sleep. My elbows were also uncomfortable against the arm rests. But I refused to move. I concentrated on ridding myself of the conviction that it was impossible to sleep in this position.

Soon my mind wandered. Strange things floated through it. As frustrating as it was to sit there failing to sleep in the stuffy carbon-dioxide-rich air under my blanket, it did dredge up a few curious long-forgotten memories, and some interesting thoughts.

Some of them were perfect for blog posts. They were so good that I temporarily abandoned my sleeping plan. I threw off the blanket and dug out the sick bag from the pocket of the seat in front of me, and scribbled my thoughts onto it. I jotted down a series of points that would make two excellent articles on the foundations of modern science, the twisted character of hotshot scientists, and the fraught relationship between scientists and the general public. When I was finished I was so tired that my eyes ached.

I arranged myself back into my blanket cocoon. I once again determined not to move until I had fallen asleep.

A moment later the plane landed: I had been asleep for three hours.

While I stood at baggage claim, I looked at my list of ideas. They were all gibberish.

That was two months ago. Since then my standards have shifted. Now that sick-bag of scribbles is all I've got. I'll type them up now, and post them when I get a chance.

[Six days later...]

I wrote that six days ago. I think it's safest to say that posting might be sporadic for a while. I'll try to post as regularly as possible on Mondays, but I can't be sure what oddities will spring from my manic, panicked and randomized state of mind at unexpected moments. If you want to keep track of this silliness, I suggest using one of those social media widgets, like twitter, or google's "follow" button. And if you don't, I completely understand -- but I will hold it against you anyway.