Google leaving China?

If this goes ahead it’ll be a pretty far-reaching move:

We launched Google.cn in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results. …

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

[Full post]

Google’s been pretty widely criticised for its Chinese operations in the past; this is certainly to their credit, though I suspect those who’re most opposed to them won’t see stopping as much of a penance for having done it to begin with. (It’ll also shake up the Chinese internet market a bit – Google apparently has a market share of a quarter to a third of all searches there)

What’s interesting about the post is what it doesn’t say. The attacks are “highly sophisticated and targeted”, and a primary goal was aimed at reading the mail of individual human rights activists, not something that you’d routinely aim for as part of corporate espionage. They’re pointedly not accusing the government, not in so many words; it’s just hanging there waiting to see who runs with it.

Four hundred years ago today

7th January, 1610. Galileo turned his telescope to the sky, and “I have seen Jupiter accompanied by three fixed stars…”.

Die itaque septima Ianuarii, instantis anni millesimi sexcentesimi decimi, hora sequentis noctis prima, cum cælestia sidera per Perspicillum spectarem, Iuppiter sese obviam fecit; cumque admodum excellens mihi parassem instrumentum (quod antea ob alterius organi debilitatem minime contigerat), tres illi adstare Stellulas, exiguas quidem, veruntamen clarissimas, cognovi; quæ, licet e numero inerrantium a me crederentur, nonnullam tamen intulerunt admirationem, eo quod secundum exactam lineam rectam atque Eclipticæ parallelam dispositæ videbantur, ac cæteris magnitudine paribus splendidiores.

(I am faintly pleased that I understand more than three words of that. Life’s simple pleasures.)

Here’s where it all began, in a way. Four centuries on, we can talk quickly and happily of three-hundred-mile sulphur plumes, ice-bound planetary oceans teeming with hypothetical life, moons larger than planets, or geological features a thousand miles across; we have photographed them from near and from far, mapped them to a point, studied and speculated for lifetimes. They allowed us, less than a century later, to work out a fundamental physical constant for the first time. We have even worked with them so closely that we have begun to worry about the risk of physically contaminating them, amazing as it sounds.

But they’re still four little dots in the sky, clustered around a bigger dot; people can still pick up binoculars for the first time, or a cheap child’s telescope, look up, and feel the same rush. This is the easiest way to see it; they’re the most available sign that the system works, that there are some kind of universal laws out there, and that we ourselves can stand still and watch them played out in front of our eyes, regular as clockwork. I remember years ago, clustered in a telescope dome in a night which felt almost as cold as this one, watching the three moons strung out around Jupiter, the blurry cloud bands of light and dark on its surface… and then a perfect black circle in the middle of the southern hemisphere, as Io swung between it and the sun, letting us see an eclipse from four hundred million miles away. (We were meant to be looking at Saturn, but you don’t forget that kind of opportunity. I still have the slip of paper with the picture in a box somewhere.)

There’s a good set of posts here on the discovery and its context; if you feel up to the Latin, there’s a transcription of the Sidereus Nuncius here, or a scanned copy here (the Jovian moons are from leaf 17 on). Note the diagrams.

Snow, snow, snow

It may not have escaped anyone’s notice that Oxford is under six inches or so of snow. I called into work this morning, to see what was happening, and got told “— isn’t coming in, nor is —. And neither are you.”

Well, I know better than when to argue. So, a day off to go photographing!

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The real delight was Hinksey Lake, which was entirely iced (or at least slushed) over. Large amounts of it were covered in loose drifts of snow, with occasional duck-tracks; here and there were small craters where a duck had flown in and landed too heavily, or some snow had fallen in and broken through the crust.

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The last couple make me think of photographs of an icy surface somewhere in the outer solar system; craters on Europa or Callisto, perhaps. (The one with a buoy, meanwhile, looks like an Antarctic research station seen from the air.)

Security theatre strikes again

With the exception of two brief trips this past year, I’ve not been overseas since 2004. (2006 if you count literally overseas and include, er, Belfast). It’s not that I dislike going places – I enjoy it a lot – it’s just that I loathe flying. Being in the air is lovely; getting there is not.

I mean, flying as I remember it in the past isn’t much fun. I’m 6’2″, tall enough that short legroom is more of an annoyance than usual, and there’s always a lot of stress around airports – if you miss a connection, you have a lot less leeway for “oh, I’ll get on the next one” than you do with trains. You get stale food and lukewarm coffee, and you spend a lot of time in terminals at the mercy of overpriced concessions selling… well, stale food and lukewarm coffee.

But flying these days, of course, it’s all a bit more grim. Bags checked, shoes off, shoes on, bags checked again, seemingly random restrictions on what that bag can contain, etc etc, all of which largely spurious and done for the sake of looking secure rather than providing any significant benefit.

Not the sort of thing to make you look forward to the experience, all in all; I manage the rest of my life quite well without being treated like a criminal, and I don’t particularly want to pay for the privilege if I can avoid it. So, when I read today:

Among other steps being imposed, passengers on international flights coming to the United States will apparently have to remain in their seats for the last hour of a flight without any personal items on their laps. … In effect, the restrictions mean that passengers on flights of 90 minutes or less would most likely not be able to leave their seats at all, since airlines do not allow passengers to walk around the cabin while a plane is climbing to its cruising altitude.
[New York Times]

…yeah. Any remaining desire I had to fly, I can feel just flowing out of me.

I mean, even were it a meaningful security step it would make it unpleasant enough to be a deterrent; as it is, the new system… wouldn’t even have prevented yesterday’s incident.

Mr Abdulmutallab went to the bathroom for about 20 minutes before the incident, court documents say.
When he got back to his seat, he said he had an upset stomach and he pulled a blanket over himself, the affidavit continues.
“Passengers then heard popping noises similar to firecrackers, smelled an odour, and some observed Abdulmutallab’s pants, leg and the wall of the airplane on fire,” the Department of Justice said in a statement.
[BBC News]

Imagine this rule was in place. What’d you have done, wanting to get around it? You’d have gone to the bathroom earlier, secreted the stuff about your person, and sat down. Wear a long loose shirt, say; you can manipulate stuff inside that easily enough, and I don’t see people patrolling the aisles, nursery-teacher style, to check your hands are neatly folded in your laps. Not exactly rocket science, really.

We have a security system, one that works well; people being alert and reacting when something goes wrong. You couldn’t manage a September 11th style hijacking any more, not because you’re not allowed knives on board but because people won’t be deterred by knives any more. And… that’s what happened here.

Bombs, they’re another kettle of fish. In the long run, you can’t stop people detonating them once they have them – not without tranquilising everyone and sealing them in glass boxes – because it’s an arms race, and there will always be a new method. You have to stop them being there to detonate, and normal security systems are – mostly – good at that. When they’re not, when people can still turn up carrying explosives, you need to think about that problem, not about what people are and aren’t allowed to do with their hands.

Film novels

Way back in the mists of time, Jurassic Park was released. I was… let me see, ten. It should not be surprising that I loved it uncritically. Move forward fifteen years, and I happened to watch it again; it was still a pretty good film, even if parts began to look faintly dated. I ferreted out a copy of the novel and, all in all, not bad. Not quite my thing, a little heavy on the Clever Scientific Concepts – I like my fiction without detours into chaos theory – but it was enjoyable and rattled along nicely for an afternoon.

Yesterday, feeling particularly cold, I ducked into a charity shop; the only thing on the shelf that looked even vaguely interesting was, unexpectedly, a copy of the sequel, The Lost World. So, I paid a pound for it, and went back out into the snow to catch my bus home.

All I knew about this novel was that it was a sequel, it was somewhat hastily written to respond to the ravening demand for one, and that it would have been written with the expectation of being turned into a film. So, you’d expect a bit of sloppiness in the plotting, a few sections in need of editorial help, the usual signs of a book that did not quite get the attention it deserved. And we had them; moments where the plot leapt ahead without quite making logical connections, a character who seems entirely unsurprised to run into someone he thought he’d murdered three chapters earlier, and a Big Clever Scientific Explanation near the end which doesn’t quite make sense. (The entire plot doesn’t make sense in the context of the previous book’s events, either, come to think of it – but I can let that one slide.)

Despite this, it’s the film aspect that really leapt out. There are chase scenes in this; passages which don’t really work, seeming fast and clumsy, but when you re-read them you realise they’d look impressive on camera. Exposition is done in monologues in preference to narrative text. Characters are flat and hard to distinguish from their written speech alone. An obligatory pair of annoyingly competent children are shoehorned in, without any real attempt to explain how or why or if it makes sense. It all feels very forced, very much an attempt to make it punchier and more glossy at the expense of what plot there was before.

(It could have been worse, of course. Wikipedia notes, with what seems to be restrained amusement, that “the novel does not feature an adult Tyrannosaurus rampaging in San Diego, unlike in the film.”)

It’s a pity, really; it’s easy to dismiss this sort of quasi-tie-in novel as going to be terrible anyway, but we can see from the previous iteration that there was scope for something decent here. I wonder if it holds for other such sequels? The only example I can think of offhand is 2001 – where the first novel was written almost simultaneously with the film – but that’s such an odd case it’d be hard to draw any conclusions from it. 2010 was invariably going to seem brasher and punchier than 2001, because so would virtually anything else…

A new planet

It’s strange that I go on holiday and promptly fail to have enough time to do anything, but there you go. Haven’t posted in weeks.

So, moving on, today’s (yesterdays?) news. A research team in the US has identified a planet orbiting the red dwarf GJ 1214. What makes this particularly interesting – by comparison to the long line of extrasolar planets discovered in the past ten years – is two things:

  • Its characteristics. It’s quite small – six and a half earth masses, and about twice the diameter – but it’s also quite light. This indicates an unusual composition; it’s probably composed of ice and a small core, with a thick atmosphere, rather than rock. It’s hot, though – not as hot as Venus, but certainly hotter than we’d like – and so that ice is probably in some exotic form.
  • …and the way it was discovered. This wasn’t identified as the result of a high-powered orbital mission, or of extensive searching on one of the major telescopes; it was a small group of researchers, cherry-picking likely targets, for a total cost probably under half a million dollars. We can hope to see quite a few more…

We’re about four centuries – give or take three weeks – from Galileo discovering the first icy worlds, little satellites in orbit around Jupiter. This new object – a super-Ganymede as much as a super-Earth – seems a pretty triumphant discovery to mark the anniversary.

Borders slowly dying

The Bookseller reports that Borders UK is a short distance from collapse; it’s been cut off by several major wholesale suppliers, it’s unable to meet its bills, and it’s sitting on the sale block.

The sale block is not a particularly enticing one, either; WH Smiths have turned down the opportunity to buy the firm, and HMV (who own Waterstones) are only interested in cherry-picking a few stores, presumably ones where they’re not in direct competition. There’s always the possibility someone new might swoop in and try to set up their own position in the market, but media retailers with spare cash are few and far between this year, and high-street bookselling isn’t a very tempting prospect these days.

There’s interesting implications here for the book market as a whole. Borders has far fewer stores than Waterstones, who have a very large share of the book market, but it has a high turnover; on 2008 figures, it had about 40% the business of Waterstones – Blackwells and Amazon UK equalled about a quarter of Waterstones apiece, though obviously the latter includes a large non-book element. It’s not unreasonable to say that Borders represents 5-10% of the British book market, at least.

So where’s that going to go? Interesting times loom ahead – but given the distribution of Waterstones and Borders stores, which are usually very closely placed and directly competing for the same passing trade, it seems pretty easy to guess who’ll get the benefit of it over Christmas.

Archives for the 21st Century

Mike Peel of WMUK points out the new governmental policy on public archives. A couple of interesting figures to highlight:

  • There are about 300 publicly funded archives; half local government, a quarter universities, then museums etc making up the remaining third.
  • Per-capita funding for archive services by local government varies by a factor of twenty-two between the best and least funded regions. (In absolute terms, which is a bit less meaningful due to sharp population distinctions, it’s a factor of forty)
  • Less than 50% of material is described in online catalogues; less than 1% is accessible via digitisation programs. (I suspect the missing word there is vastly less than 1%…) [p. 14]
  • The National Archives provides 170 digital documents for every one used in a reading room, and given the overall figures (112m) that suggests a reading-room usage of 650,000 per year. [p.18]

One figure that would have been very helpful would be an estimate – even an order-of-magnitude ballpark estimate – as to the economic value of public archives. Section 2 talks at some length about the tangible benefits of archives, and indeed mentions economic benefits twice alongside things such as supporting public decision-making or academic research, but the whole section is quite vague and devoid of numbers to quantify what those economic benefits are.

Whatever the plan that follows this report turns out to be, it’ll imply government spending in some way or another; to help make the case for supporting these services properly we need to be able to say – archives are [potentially] worth fifty million to the country a year, or a hundred million, or whatever number it might be. People make these numbers for libraries, for museums, for school playing fields… it shouldn’t be too difficult for the sector to say, upfront, this is what we’re worth to you, treat us accordingly.

(It may seem a bit blunt – but, well, arguing for more public funding without hard numbers is like going unarmed to a duel. You may go through all the motions, but unless your opponent is very scrupulous, you’ll lose)

Recipe: too much passata

Last night, we made pizzas. (This is now my favourite way of feeding a dozen people – the work can be shared out easily, it allows for complex democratisation of who eats what and how much of it, and you can spread it over an hour so you only need one oven.)

The problem was, we ended up with too much sauce. A small bowl of heavy, thick, gloopy passata-and-garlic-and-basil sauce which I salvaged for dinner today; nice and rich, but too thick to put on pasta.

So, take the sauce, bulk it out a bit with a small tin of tomato pureé and an equal amount of warm water; mix in chopped cooked sausages, chopped carrots, and some mushrooms. Cook for about thirty minutes at 200 degrees; stir, add some cheese on top, another twenty minutes. Serve with an enormous pile of rice.

Not bad, all told, but more filling than it looked at first! Two things that’d have improved it:

  • parboiling the carrots before adding them, as they came out a little too crunchy
  • using equal amounts of red wine and pureé, rather than water and pureé

We had red wine to hand, in fact, but vetoed using it because it seemed too nice to cook with and there wasn’t much left. I think that was the right decision, but it’s tough to say.