Friday, 30 May 2008

Simon's speech

I am very smart.

I went to the best medic-ed in Osiris, top 3% of my class; finished my internship in eight months. "Gifted" is the term.

So when I tell you that my little sister makes me look like an idiot child, I want you to understand my full meaning.

River was more than gifted, she ... she was a gift. I mean, everything she did --- music, math, theoretical physics, even ... even dance --- there was nothing that didn't come as naturally to her as breathing does to us. And she could be a real brat about it to: I mean, she used to ... [awkward pause]

There was a ... a school, a government-sponsored academy: we had never even heard of it but it had the most exciting programme, the most challenging. We could have sent her anywhere (we had the money), but she wanted to go: she wanted to learn. She was fourteen ...

I, ah ... I got a few letters at first, and then I didn't hear for months. Finally I got a letter that made no sense: she talked about things that never happened, jokes that we never ...

It was a code. It just said: "They're hurting us. Get me out."

[Zoe asks, "How'd you do it?"]

Money. And ... and luck. For two years I couldn't get near her, but then I was contacted by some men, some underground movement, they said that she was in danger, that the ... that the government was ... playing with her brain. If I funded them they could sneak her out in cryo, get her to Persephone, and from there I could take her ... wherever.

[Inara: "Will she be alright?"]

I don't know if she'll be alright. I don't know what they did to her; or why. I ... I just have to keep her safe.
Simon Tam is explaining to the Serenity crew why he was smuggling his sister in a crate on board their ship; why the Alliance is after them; why he would risk everything, his own life, and the lives of others into the bargain. It's the Whedon ethic in a pure form: a high value on personal loyalty and obligation; a willingness to break rules; a suspicion of grand causes; and the utter rejection of wrongs done by groups "for the greater good".

And it is heartbreaking. People have talked about "found families" in Joss Whedon's programs --- the emphasis on the group of friends, over and above natural family --- but Simon and River Tam are an example of total, unwavering, illusionless devotion. River knows that her brother is a stiff: awkward, humourless, unrelaxed; and Simon knows only too well that River was always fragile, and that now she's broken ... and more than a little crazy. Yet for them, that doesn't change anything.

The sci-fi western Firefly was that rare thing: a cult television program that lived up to the hype; a pearl of great price that the network didn't properly recognise. It earned its impossible fairytale ending: the wonderful movie Serenity, a critical and popular success, vindicating the cancelled show. And bringing Simon and River's story to a fitting conclusion. It bears watching again and again, over years now, but recently the start of it all has been returning to my thoughts. The TV show is quite arch, even flip about some things, but there is a centredness to it as well, a real conviction. And this is exhibit A.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

There are many copies. I don't know if they have a plan.

Olivia Judson, a.k.a. Dr Tatiana, made an informative post on cybrids earlier this week. It concerns the technique --- it is fair to describe it as controversial, when human DNA is involved --- of transplanting a small cell of one species into the egg of another, in place of the target cell's own nucleus. The nuclear DNA then ends up being entirely from the transplanted species ...

... but the nucleus is not the only thing with DNA. Some organelles, specifically the mitochondria, have it too, and mitochondria are important. Whether the (say) human/bovine mitochondrial differences, or other differences between human and bovine eggs, are important, I'm not well-placed to judge.

I was struck by the statement that "A mammalian egg may contain as many as 200,000 mitochondria": I had no idea that it could be so many. (Lots of cells have only a handful.) This seems to be another of those areas where even people like me, members of the scientific community in good standing but with only rudimentary biology, know some of the facts but not their relative importance or proportion: where we miss the "feel" of the thing. As I have learned over the years, the interior of a cell can be a very complicated, crowded, non-soup-like place. This is not what I was told at school.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Addiction, oversharing, and the new economy

I felt liberated — finally, a job where I could really be myself! Never again would I have to censor my office-inappropriate sentiments or shop the sale racks at Club Monaco for office-appropriate outfits. But at the same time, I wasn’t quite convinced that the system of apprenticeship and gradual promotion that I’d left behind when I left book publishing was as flawed as establishment-attacking Gawker made it out to be. I’d been lucky enough, in my publishing job, to have the kind of boss who actually cared about my future. At Gawker, I barely had a boss, and my future was always in jeopardy. In my old job, I’d been able to slowly, steadily learn the ropes, but now I was judged solely on what I produced every day. I had a kind of power, sure, but it was only as much power as my last post made it seem like I deserved.
And as with the employment conditions, so (it turned out) with the social conditions. The quote is from a terrifying-yet-oddly-fascinating article to appear in the upcoming weekend magazine section of the NYT, by writer Emily Gould on her period as an editor at Gawker Media, "a network of highly trafficked blogs".

The whole thing is interesting to reflect upon as a topic for intergenerational argument. Does Emily's mother (or perhaps her grandmother) understand the world, the economy, the social circle in which she is moving, and its rules and opportunities and risks? Almost certainly not. Is that world an example of everything her (grand)mother warned her against? Almost certainly, yes.

The news on Ted Kennedy

The ABC nightly news in Sydney on Wednesday reported Senator Ted Kennedy's cancer diagnosis in the following terms: that tributes had been pouring in from Democrats, and that the situation was tragic.

As reporting this is incompetent, and as a judgment it is absurd.

Among the prominent well-wishers in the United States have been President George W. Bush, Senator John McCain, and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. None of these people were Democrats the last time I checked. Senator McConnell is quoted in the New York Times in these terms: "Senator Kennedy enjoys great respect and admiration on this side of the aisle [i.e. among Republicans] ... He is indeed one of the most important figures to ever serve in this body in our history." That respect would be because Kennedy has been serving in the US Senate for 46 years, is acknowledged by all persons as one of its leaders, and in the manner of active members of that institution habitually forges alliances with, and drafts or co-sponsors legislation with members of the other side. The death or serious illness of a legislator of Kennedy's stature is a sombre bipartisan event in the US. You do not need to be an expert on American politics to know this sort of thing, and for the premier television news program in Australia to be tone-deaf to it ... I'm sorry, it is just inexcusable.

Oh and BTW, for a little context, the guy doubled over and weeping at the podium over Teddy's cancer in the broadcast (Robert C Byrd) is 90, and is the only person who has been in the chamber longer than Senator Kennedy. So he has a free pass to cry in this matter, it would seem to me.

As for the situation being tragic: the Senator is 76. It is sad for him and for his family and friends (there are rather a lot of both), poignant given his brothers' fate, and in the manner of these things it has brought everyone up short with a reminder of the inevitability of death: lots of people participate in this particular illness. But it is not a tragedy. Cancer striking down a teenager or a person in their twenties, a mother in her thirties, a family man in his forties --- that is tragic. To live into one's late seventies in reasonable health and vigour, with wealth and family, and moreover in a position of great power and acknowledged leadership --- that is a good innings under any definition. It is regrettable that it will likely be cut short (for as I understand, the prognosis is poor for a man of the Senator's age with this kind of tumour) but it is not a deep offense against the proper order of things. Let's get some perspective.

[Disclosure: I lost my own father to cancer at 80, on about a week's notice, when he had otherwise been in very good health for a man of his age. So if I'm being unreasonable here, it's not for lack of exposure to the phenomenon.]

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Mongolia via Taiwan, with assistance from Iran and Poland

I've recently been in Taipei for the Flavor Physics and CP Violation conference, the highlight of which was the ominously named "cultural activity" ... a trip to a local auditorium to hear the Mongolian singer Urna perform together with the Chemirani Trio on zarb drums (and other percussion), and the wonderful Jerzy Bawol. (I will never say a bad word about the accordian again, I swear it.)

This was splendidly accessible, serious, light-hearted, joyful music, without a trace of irony. Terrific stuff. There are samples on the Urna website I linked, but sadly none from the particular collaboration that I saw on the 6th.

It's somehow appropriate that one could find so impeccably international a collaboration in a place that does not even belong to the United Nations ...

[The slides of my presentation at FPCP, a review of "Quantum entanglement at the ψ(3770) and Υ(4S)", can be downloaded from the conference site. Regular readers of this blog may recognise the principal result, which was previously remarked under "Tangled up in (quantum) blue". Particle physicists (and some other physicists) should have no trouble with the slides, but I guess they'll be somewhat heavy going for anyone else. The writeup for the conference proceedings will, I hope, be a bit more accessible. I will link it here when it's done.]

UPDATE (13th Oct 2008): The writeup of my talk is now available on the arXiv server. I discuss it in a new post on this blog.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Le Carré on spies, the Swiss, and a short Hungarian

Peter Guillam is recalling the first time he worked with Toby Esterhase, the surveillance genius of the British Secret Service (a.k.a. "The Circus"):
Whenever he thought of Toby, that was what he thought of: Switzerland eight years ago, when Toby was just a humdrum watcher with a reputation for informal listening on the side. Guillam was kicking his heels after North Africa, so the Circus packed them both off to Berne on a one-time operation to spike a pair of Belgian arms dealers who were using the Swiss to spread their wares in unpopular directions. They rented a villa next door to the target house, and the following night Toby opened up a junction box and rearranged things so that they overheard the Belgians' conversations on their own phone. Guillam was boss and legman, and twice a day he dropped the tapes on the Berne residency, using a parked car as a letter-box. With the same ease, Toby bribed the local postman to give him a first sight of the Belgians' mail before he delivered it, and the cleaning lady to plant a radio mike in the drawing-room where they held most of their discussions. For diversion, they went to Chikito and Toby danced with the youngest girls. Now and then he brought one home, but by morning she was always gone and Toby had the windows open to get rid of the smell.

They lived this way for three months and Guillam knew him no better at the end than he had on the first day. He didn't even know his country of origin. Toby was a snob, and knew the places to eat and be seen. He washed his own clothes and at night he wore a net over his snow white hair, and on the day the police hit the villa and Guillam had to pop over the back wall, he found Toby at the Bellevue Hotel munching pâtisseries and watching the thé dansant. He listened to what Guillam had to say, paid his bill, tipped first the bandleader, then Franz, the head porter, and then led the way along a succession of corridors and staircases to the underground garage where he had cached the escape car and passports. There also, punctiliously, he asked for his bill. Guillam thought, if you ever want to get out of Switzerland in a hurry, you pay your bills first.
The main action of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy is set in 1973, so this anecdote takes place in 1965 or so. I have always loved this as a piece of writing: memorable, vivid, easily evoking a whole little world and its practices, not to mention its characters and values. (Both the surprise and the inevitability of exposure is nicely caught by the matter-of-fact "and on the day the police hit the villa ...".) Esterhase is of course, as his name suggests, a Hungarian. He's a mildly comic figure throughout the Smiley/Karla novels, and not taken 100% seriously as a person by anyone: both because of his mannerisms, and because he's from Hungary, a country that everyone (and especially the Russians) finds intrinsically ridiculous. But no-one denies his talents. "Tiny Toby spoke no known language perfectly," we are told at one point, "but he spoke them all."

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Brontë on frankness and reserve

By this time he had sat down: he had laid the picture on the table before him, and with his brow supported on both hands, hung fondly over it. I discerned he was now neither angry nor shocked at my audacity. I saw even that to be thus frankly addressed on a subject he had deemed unapproachable --- to hear it thus freely handled --- was beginning to be felt by him as a new pleasure --- an unhoped-for relief. Reserved people often really need the frank discussion of their sentiments and griefs more than the expansive. The sternest-seeming stoic is human after all: and to `burst' with boldness and good will into `the silent sea' of their souls is often to confer on them the first of obligations.
I am finally, after many interruptions and failures of application, struggling towards the end of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, this being my third, and I swore my final, attempt to read it. Passages like this one make it seem worthwhile: I see the point of the book.

Call me a Philistine if you will, but I don't see the point of a lot of the rest. Such as --- oh, let us pull an example out of the air just at random --- Mr Rochester. Let me be clear that this is no mere objection to Rochester being a woman's man: a fantasy figure. For I would have a beer with Mr Knightley at any time, on a moment's notice.