Book Review: “A Selfie As Big As The Ritz” by Lara Williams

A Selfie As Big As The Ritz by Lara Williams

This collection of (very) short stories tells of life in Williams’ Manchester (just released in the US this fall). The stories are about relationships and mostly break ups, unhappiness, sadness, depression, death, and many other unpleasantries. Altogether, it is G-R-I-M, grim.

Williams style is intentionally compressed, squeezing a lot of personal history into f few pages. It is rather lossy compression, and the stories are ambiguous and sketchy, leaving much to the inference of the reader. In many cases, I didn’t really know what had happened or was happening, or whether the events were past, present, or fantasy.

The stories are about relationships, especially in the life a young woman with a Masters in writing living in Manchester. “Write what you know”, I guess.

Any one of her stories is a little puzzle to work out. But taken together as a collection, it’s really awful to read dozens of permutations of unhappy, lonely people.

The stories are mostly about breakups and disappointments. When there are happy moments or relationships, they are rapidly ended, sometimes before they can even start.

I couldn’t really understand the protagonists, let alone identify with them. It’s not that they can’t find happiness, they seem to want to be unhappy. They push away good things, sometimes for no reason I can discern.

If this is a slice or life or, heaven help her, autobiographical, it’s outside my own experience. If these are metaphors or messages, I haven’t a clue what she is trying to tell me. If this is supposed to be theraputic or to help people, please tell me how it is supposed to do any good.

Williams writes reasonably well, but these stories (especially collected in a mass) are unpleasant to read. I’m left wonder why anyone would be writing such depressing stories.

  1. Lara Williams, A Selfie As Big As The Ritz, London, Penguin, 2016.


Sunday Book Reviews

Antarctica Heat Flux Map

One of the most important scientific questions of the early twenty first century is, “what’s going on in Antarctica?”

Antarctica is a the largest reserve of ice on the planet, and when (not if) the ice melts, it will raise sea levels by tens of meters. Glub.  (See a new NASA simulation of the effects of the melting ice.)

Just how fast is the ice melting?

This is a complex question to answer. The ice caps are gigantic (miles deep at places), and warmed by the air above and the Earth and sea underneath. Warmer air and water melt the ice, but may produce more new snow. There are liquid rivers and lakes under the ice which erode and melt from underneath. In some places glacier of ice are flowing down to the sea, where they will break up and melt.

It’s complicated.

This week a team of British researchers published a map that reflects an important piece of the picture: the heat flux under the ice [3]. This is the heat coming from the Earth’s interior, which they show is quite variable across the continent.

Hotspots are located under West Antarctica; in contrast, the East is broadly relatively cold. British Antarctic Survey.

The study used several measures of the magnetic properties of the rock under the Antarctic ice, including surface, air craft, and satellite surveys. Molten rock loses its magnetic field at a specific temperature, so the magnetic measurements can show where the rock cools below this limit. This can be used to infer the temperature at various depths below the surface.

The resulting map shows considerable variation across the continent. The warmest locations will presumably tend to melt more than cooler places (on the underside of the ice).

One interesting point from the map is that West Antarctica is melting faster than other areas, but the heat flux from the Earth is low. This suggests that the melting is due to warmer seas and ice flows, with little contribution from geothermal heat.

This dataset will contribute to many studies of the Antarctic ice. (It will be literally the foundation for many simulations.)

  1. Jonathan Amos, Antarctica’s warm underbelly revealed, in BBC News – Science & Environment. 2017.
  2. Eric Larour, Erik R. Ivins, and Surendra Adhikari, Should coastal planners have concern over where land ice is melting? Science Advances, 3 (11) 2017.

Yasmina M. Martos, Manuel Catalan, Tom A. Jordan, Alexander Golynsky, Dmitry Golynsky, Graeme Eagles, and David G. Vaughan, Heat flux distribution of Antarctica unveiled. Geophysical Research Letters:n/a-n/a,


US Is Second Place in HPC, and Soon In Everything

Much of my career orbited supercomputing one way or another, so I know the significance of the headlines this week from the Top500 list: “China Pulls Ahead of U.S. in Latest TOP500 List”.

The Top500 is a perennial ranking of the performance top supercomputers in the world. For several decades, the US dominated the list. This was not just a matter of pride, it was considered an urgent national and national security priority.

Now, I know as well as everyone that the Top500 ranking isn’t particularly significant in itself. Benchmarks of any kind are deceptive at best, and totally gamed at worst, and the traditional TOP500 doesn’t represent real life performance. [2]

But these systems represent the peak of the mountain, and generally reflect the size and capabilities of the rest of the mountain. These top end systems are built on top of vast amounts of computing, networking, and human talent.

Equally important, as Sensei Larry Smarr used to say, supercomputing is a time machine. HPC technology today will spread through out all of computing and the economy in a decade or so. Domination of the Top500 means that there is a lot of technology in the pipeline for the coming decade.

The news that China has passed the US in this list reflects the efforts of the Chinese, and the lagging efforts of the US. It also is a clear sign that China will likely be the leader in many aspects of IT and other technology in the coming decade.

China’s success is scarcely a fluke. They have been pouring resources, including government support, into many kinds of technology, as well as training and supporting research and development.

The US, in contrast, has been lagging badly. In particular, the government, by which I mean congress, has been cutting financial support for science and technology of all kinds. This week we learn of a plan to massively increase the income tax for graduate students—a brilliant way to empty out US research labs, if I ever saw one.

If you want to make America great, you need to increase support for research and development, not end it. And it would help to hire a lot more scientists, rather than harass, abuse, and purge them.

The Top500 is just one of many indications that these bone-headed policies are bearing predictable fruit. Congress and the administration are working hard to help make China number one.

  1. TOP500 News Team, China Pulls Ahead of U.S. in Latest TOP500 List, in Top500 – News. 2017.
  2. David Schneider, Two Different Top500 Supercomputing Benchmarks Show Two Different Top Supercomputers, in IEEE Spectrum – Tech Talk. 2017.


The Neverending Ethereum Disaster

This month Bitcoin almost split in two, pulling back from the brink at the last minute. Of course, there is no solution in sight for the dire scaling problems of Bitcoin, but who cares as long as the exchange rate keeps rising against the weakening US dollar?

Etherereum should be so lucky. After the DAO disaster in 2016, followed by several hard forks that rewrote history, you would think that sensible people would have headed for the hills. Of course that’s not happening.

This fall has seen yet another disaster. One of the most used wallets experienced a bug which led to the freeze of a large amount of Ethereum. I don’t really understand the bug itself, but somehow the coins were consigned to accounts that can no longer be managed. You can see your money, but no one can get it.

Just as baffling as the bug, there seems to be little urgency to fix it. It’s been a week now, and there seems to be little idea of what can be done, and shockingly little indication that anything will be done soon.

Stan Higgens writes in Coindesk that “Parity Floats Fix for $160 Million Ether Fund Freeze”, but the actual text indicates that there is no fix in sight except maybe a hard fork due in 2018 [2]. In other words, you are out of luck if you are wanting to use some of those millions of Ether any time soon.

The good ship Ethereum is like the Titanic, except when it sinks they roll back time and sail again—to sink all over again.

It is important to point out that these disasters in Ethereum are mostly not due to the core protocols and cryptography that define the distributed ledger itself. The DAO went down with all hands because of a bug in executable contract code, and the Parity Wallet ran aground due to the wallet code (related to executable contract code, I think), not the ledger itself.

The point is, security is an end-to-end thing <<link>>. People who talk about how invulnerable the core ledger is supposed to be are missing the point: Ethereum or any cryptocurrency is only as secure as the weakest link between two users. And there are a lot of links: wallets, APIs, servers, networks, mobile devices, and OS code, to name a few. And there are people in the chain, too, heaven help us.

At some point, you have to ask whether Ethereum is creating more problems than it is solving.

  1. Stan Higgins, Parity Floats Fix for $160 Million Ether Fund Freeze. Coindesk.November 13 2017,
  2. Parity Technologies, Parity Technologies Multi-Sig Wallet Issue Update, in Parity Technologies Blog. 2017.


Cryptocurrency Thursday


Biomimetic Robotic Zebrafish

Bioinspired and Biomimetic systems are the bees knees (sometimes, literally! [1]).

In some cases, taking bio inspiration leads to designs and design principles for human purposes (e.g., crawly robots inspired by Earthworms [2], or nets inspired by spiderwebs [4]).

Other times, creating a biomimetic robot teaches us about nature.

A group of European researchers from Ecole Polytechnique Fédéral de Lausanne and Sorbonne report this fall on a project that has created a robot zebrafish (Danio rerio) that joins the school of live zebrafish [3].

This is actually pretty difficult, because zebrafish are kind of loosey-goosey about schooling, coming together as needed in different situations. Today’s successful zebrafish must pay attention to the other fish, and play nicely with others.

The result is a robot not only looks and swims like a zebrafish, it learns the social signals of the fish, and behaves correctly I.e., it mimics the anatomy, the movement, the behavior, and the social signaling of the natural fish.


This seemingly rather simple result required analysis of how zebrafish school. The researchers developed a two level model, a high level strategy (where the school is going) and a more detailed movement model (how to move in the school).

They also had to quantify the “social integration” achieved by the robot and other fish, which is a measure of how zebrafish-like the robot is, compared to observations of the real zebrafish.

And, of course, they used a fishbot that looks and swims like a zebrafish. For some reason, zebrafish aren’t fooled by a lure that is a very abstract fish shape.

The researchers emphasize that all three forms of mimicry are important for successful schooling.  She’s gotta look like a zebrafish, swim like a zebrafish, and follow along like a zebrafish.

These results suggest that it should be possible to create robots that not only join in, but persuade and lead a school via the natural signaling of the fish. Such a robot or group of robots presumably would be a low-stress method to herd fish. (I’m not completely sure why one would need to herd zebrafish, per se.)

This study is pretty awesome.

It does to seem like kind of a one-off case, though. It took a lot of work to observe and model these small groups of zebrafish. It isn’t clear how well these techniques might apply to larger groups, longer time periods, other environments, or other species.

Obviously, it will be useful to automate the learning of the social signals and so on as they suggest. Eventually, this might lead to a theory of fish—metaknowledge of different cognitive models in fish. Now that would be cool.

  1. J. Amador Guillermo, Matherne Marguerite, Waller D’Andre, Mathews Megha, N. Gorb Stanislav, and L. Hu David, Honey bee hairs and pollenkitt are essential for pollen capture and removal. Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, 12 (2):026015, 2017.
  2. Fang Hongbin, Zhang Yetong, and K. W. Wang, Origami-based earthworm-like locomotion robots. Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, 12 (6):065003, 2017.
  3. Leo Cazenille, Bertrand Collignon, Yohann Chemtob, Frank Bonnet, Alexey Gribovskiy, Francesco Mondada, Nicolas Bredeche, and José Halloy, How mimetic should a robotic fish be to socially integrate into zebrafish groups ? (accepted). Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, 2017
  4. Zheng, L., M. Behrooz, and F. Gordaninejad, A bioinspired adaptive spider web. Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, 12 (1):016012, 2017.



Robot Wednesday


PS. Wouldn’t  “Biomimetic Robotic Zebrafish” be a good name for a band?

Listening for Mosquitos

The ubiquitous mobile phone has opened many possibilities for citizen science. With most citizens equipped with a phone, and many with small supercomputers in the purse or pocket, it is easier than ever to collect data from wherever humans may be.

These devices are increasing the range of field studies, enabling the identification of plants and animals by sight and sound.

One key, of course, is the microphones and cameras. Sold to be used for deals and dating, not to mention selfies, these instruments are outstripping what scientists can afford.

The other key is that mobile devices are connected to the Internet, so data uploads are trivial. This technology is sold for commerce and dating and for sharing selfies, but it is perfect for collecting time and location stamped data.

In short, the vanity of youngsters has funded infrastructure that is better than scientists have ever built. Sigh.


This fall the Stanford citizen science folks are talking about yet another crowd sourced data collection: an project that identifies mosquitos by their buzz.

According to the information, Abuzz works on most phones, including older flip phones (AKA, non-smart phones).

It took me a while to figure out that Abuzz isn’t an app at all. It is a manual process. Old style.

You use the digital recording feature on your phone to record a mosquito. Then you upload that file to their web site. This seems to be a manual process, and I guess that we’re supposed to know how to save and upload sound files.

The uploaded files are analyzed to identify the species of mosquito. There are thousands of species, but the training data emphasized the important, disease bearing species we are most interested in knowing about.

A recent paper reports the details of the analysis techniques [2]. First of all, mobile phone microphones pick up mosquito sounds just fine. As we all know, the whiny buzz of those varmints is right their in human hearing, so its logical that telephones tuned ot human speech would hear mosquitos just fine.

The research indicates that the microphone is good in a range of up to 100mm. This is pretty much what you would expect for a hand held phone. So, you are going to have to hold the phone up to the mosquito, just like you would pass it to a friend to say hello.

At the crux of the matter, they were able to distinguish different mosquitos from recordings made by phone. Different species of mosquito have distinct sounds from their wing beats, and the research showed that they can detect the differences from these recordings.

They also use the time and location metadata to help identify the species. For example, the geographic region narrows down the species that are likely to be encountered.

The overall result is that it should be possible to get information about mosquito distributions from cell phone recordings provided by anyone who participates. This may contribute to preventing disease, or at least alerting the public to the current risks.

This project is pretty conservative, which is an advantage and a disadvantage. The low tech data collection is great, especially since the most interesting targets for surveillance are likely to be out in the bush, where the latest iPhones will be thin on the ground.

On the other hand, the lack of an app or a plug in to popular social platforms means that the citizen scientists have to invest more work, and get less instant gratification. This may reduce participation. Obviously, it would be possible to make a simple app, so that those with smart phones have an even simpler way to capture and upload data.

Anyway, it is clear that the researchers understand this issue. The web site is mostly instructions and video tutorials, featuring encouraging invitations from nice scientists. (OK, I thought the comment that “I would love to see is people really thinking hard about the biology of these complex animals” was a bit much.

I haven’t actually tried to submit data yet. (It’s winter here, the skeeters are gone until spring). I’m not really sure what kind of feedback you get. It would be really cool to return email a rapid report (i.e., within 24 hours). It should say the initial identification from your data (or possibly ‘there were problems, we’ll have to look at it), along with overall statistics to put your data in context (e.g., we’re getting a lot of reports of Aegyptus in your part of Africa).

To do this, you’d need to automate the data analysis, which would be a lot of work, but certainly is doable.

I’ll note that this particular data collection is something that cannot be done by UAVs. Drones are, well, too droney. Even if you could chase mosquitos, it would be difficult to record them over the darn propellers. (I won’t say impossible—sound processing can do amazing things).

I’ll also note that this research method wins points for being non-invasive. No mosquitos were harmed in this experiment. (Well, they were probably swatted, but the experiment itself was harmless.) This is actually important, because you don’t want mosquitos to selectively adapt to evade the surveillance.

  1. Taylor Kubota, Stanford researchers seek citizen scientists to contribute to worldwide mosquito tracking, in Stanford – News. 2017.
  2. Haripriya Mukundarajan, Felix Jan Hein Hol, Erica Araceli Castillo, and Cooper Newby Using mobile phones as acoustic sensors for high-throughput mosquito surveillance. eLife. doi: 10.7554/eLife.27854 October 11 2017,

The Psychology of the Supernatural

This month Kathryn Schulz writes a lovely little essay in the New Yorker about “Fantastic Beasts and How to Rank Them” [1]. As a member of the original International Society of Cryptozoology, as well as life long fan of fictional worlds of all kinds, I enjoyed her summary of recent psychological research on how people think about “impossible” things.

As the title implies, some of this research examines how people reason about imaginary entities and situations. Is a Yeti more or less “impossible” than a vampire? Is levitation more or less impossible than becoming invisible? And so on.

The interesting thing for psychologists is that even though people may agree that something is imaginary and pretty much impossible in the real world, we can not only imagine it, but imagine the world that it exists in.

Of course, imagining the not (yet) real is the heart of creativity of all kinds, so no one should be surprised that people do it. And imagining how a not-yet-real think would really work is the crux of both invention and story telling.

The recent psychological work has worked to tie this imagination with intuitive physics, the unscientific scientific rules that people learn about how the world works. AKA, “commonsense”. For example, objects do not change into other objects. Big objects are generally heavier than little objects. Stuff like this.

Schulz discusses recent experiments that sort through different sets of these rules as they apply to imaginary animals and situations. Essentially, the concept of “impossible” can be broken down into a range of ways that things are impossible. Some things are “impossible” in many, many ways (such as Hollywood vampires or time travel). Others are actually possible, but just not actually factual (such as Yetis or visitors from outer space).

As she notes, at least from what people say in psychology experiments, there is often strong agreement on such decisions. This is very interesting because it offers a glimpse into what and how people learn about the world. These imaginary cases shed light on everyday reasoning about the real and the possible.

As is often the case, psychologists would benefit from walking across the quad to talk with some Anthropologists about this topic.

Schultz hints as some of the cultural variation that can be found in the world. Almost everyone has grown up with tales of ghosts, but the details are different in different traditions. Hollywood has blurred folk cultures with its own super-cultural mish-mash, but Chinese ghosts and vampires are still quite different from English and Transylvanian entities.

These differences are due to the critical role of story telling. Humans like to tell stories,which tie up events, causes, and effects into a coherent narrative. Stories give explanations for random and inexplicable events, and describe the world at a human level.

(Perhaps the key innovation in all of “science” is that it uses a different kind of story, one that isn’t human centered, includes randomness, and is not judged by whether people like the story or not. Stories, yes. But not just any story.)

Many “impossible” animals and situations are known to us through stories, not through experience.  When people are judging Yeti vs.. Dracula they are working from folk tales, not from scientific journals or personal experience. These stories may be based in cognitive illusions (e.g., ideas about disembodied souls) and intuitive physics, but mostly they reflect the motives and anxieties of the society they come from.

Hollywood vampires are scientifically improbable for sure, but some of their features are obviously ideological. Setting aside the evident deep, deep anxieties about the seduction of young women, Hollywood vampires are associated with demonic forces, and are supposed to be allergic to crucifixes and holy water as much as sunlight and silver. These traits is obviously Christian propaganda, painted onto folk tales about revenents. And, by the way, the supposed effects  of a cross on a Vampire is just as plausible or implausible as your beliefs in holy water, crucifixes, and exorcism—which is a whole different psychological question.

Taking verbal reports as indications of folk-science also misses the key point that many such tales have become symbols of specific cultural identity. Endorsing Bigfoot, Biblical literalism, and the everyday influence of demons and angels may be as much about asserting cultural solidarity (or resistance), as a literal claim of truth. This has nothing to do with reason and evidence, and everything to do with personal identity.

I may say that Bigfoot is more likely than Zombies, but maybe that’s reflecting my preference in popular TV shows, and the sub-cultures they reflect.  This belief is social signalling, not pseudo-scientific reasoning about the world.

Finally, I’ll suggest that the psychologists and new anthropologist friends toodle across the quad again, over to the business and law school. Over in that part of campus, the boffins operate in the most dangerous fantasy world of all, one that believes that humans are rational creatures with common sense.

We aren’t. We are fabulists, who believe absurd stories about the world all the time. Any theory that doesn’t take that as an axiom is just plain broken.

  1. Kathryn Schulz, “Fantastic Beasts and How to Rank Them”. The New Yorker.November 6 2017, Conde Nast.


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