"Language is a virus from outer space."
William S Burroughs
So where does a journalist-turned-author go to sound off? Well, here's a pretty good start. This is where I hurl my missives out into the polluted meme-pool of human existence, hopefully to make a few ripples, if not an outright splash...
|Posted by Mark Cantrell on April 14, 2017 at 4:10 PM||comments (0)|
Biology’s source code heralds super-computing revolution
It's the digital revolution, but not as we know it – so forget silicon chips, writes Mark Cantrell. Scientists at Manchester University claim that the stuff of genes, DNA, heralds the next leap in computer technology
Computers that are faster and smarter than anything based on current technology may become possible by exploiting the properties of a complex polymer that is the 'source code' of life itself – DNA.
Researchers from the University of Manchester have show that it is possible to build a new super-fast form of computer using the stuff of genes so that it will “grow as it computes”. The conceptual breakthrough heralds a revolution in computer technology, it is claimed.
Professor Ross D King and his team have demonstrated for the first time the feasibility of engineering a so-called non-deterministic universal Turing machine (NUTM), and their research is to be published in the prestigious Journal of the Royal Society Interface.
The theoretical properties of such a computing machine, including its exponential boost in speed over electronic and quantum computers, have apparently been well understood for many years – but the Manchester breakthrough demonstrates that it is actually possible to physically create a NUTM using DNA molecules.
“Imagine a computer is searching a maze and comes to a choice point, one path leading left, the other right,” said Professor King, from Manchester’s School of Computer Science. “Electronic computers need to choose which path to follow first. But our new computer doesn’t need to choose, for it can replicate itself and follow both paths at the same time, thus finding the answer faster.
“This ‘magical’ property is possible because the computer’s processors are made of DNA rather than silicon chips. All electronic computers have a fixed number of chips. Quantum computers are an exciting other form of computer, and they can also follow both paths in a maze, but only if the maze has certain symmetries, which greatly limits their use.
“As DNA molecules are very small, a desktop computer could potentially utilize more processors than all the electronic computers in the world combined – and therefore outperform the world’s current fastest supercomputer, while consuming a tiny fraction of its energy.”
The University of Manchester is famous for its connection with Alan Turing – the founder of computer science – and for creating the first stored memory electronic computer.
Turing’s greatest achievement was inventing the concept of a universal Turing machine (UTM) – a computer that can be programmed to compute anything any other computer can compute. Electronic computers are a form of UTM, but no quantum UTM has yet been built, the university said.
“This new research builds on both these pioneering foundations,” added Professor King. “Our computer’s ability to grow as it computes makes it faster than any other form of computer, and enables the solution of many computational problems previously considered impossible.”
So, that's Moore's Law out of the equation, then? Once they actually build one of these things, that is.
|Posted by Mark Cantrell on April 1, 2017 at 4:30 PM||comments (0)|
Scientists don't rate our chances once the undead bite
Scientists at Leicester University don't rate humanity's chances in the event of a zombie apocalypse, writes Mark Cantrell; so, it's probably just as well there's no such thing outside of fiction... er, right?
AS many a horror aficionado knows, there's just no living with zombies, but the popularity of this necrotic presence in popular genre fiction suggests we can't quite live without them either.
Now a team of scientists at the University of Leicester, UK, has applied a little epidemiological thinking to a potential walker apocalypse – and they don't rate our chances.
In a real-life zombie outbreak, they calculate, that 100 days after a peckish patient zero took a bite out of victim number one, there'd be a mere 275 human survivors – outnumbered a million-to-one by zombies. Talk about a short, sharp descent from the top of the food chain.
The study makes the assumption that a zombie can find one person each day, with a 90% chance of infecting the victim; from then on it’s exponential mayhem, according to the team from the university's Department of Physics & Astronomy.
Hang on, physics and astronomy? That's an odd combination for the study of a hypothetical zombie outbreak; surely you'd expect medical experts, epidemiologists, biologists, those kinds of specialisms to be taking a bite of the problem, not stargazers and quantum mechanics?
Well, you might say that astronomy and physics are number-crunching games, and in a way that's just what this little epidemiological exercise is – a mental work-out. It's a bit of pop-culture fun with a serious intent. You see the scientists behind the study aren't full-fledged white-coats just yet: no, they're students. So relax, we're not likely to get bitten out of existence any time soon, at least not by zombies.
“Every year we ask students to write short papers for the Journal of Physics Special Topics. It lets the students show off their creative side and apply some of the physics they know to the weird, the wonderful, or the everyday,” said Dr Mervyn Roy, a course tutor and lecturer at the university department.
The journal is a peer-reviewed publication designed to provide a practical taste of writing, editing, publishing and reviewing scientific papers; essentially a foretaste of what is to come as working scientists. So that's all right, then.
Back to the study. The student scientists investigated the spread of the hypothetical zombies virus using the SIR model. This is an epidemiological model that describes the spread of disease throughout a population.
The model splits the population into three categories: those susceptible to the infection, those that are infected, and those that have either died or recovered. The SIR model then considers the rates at which infections spread and die off as individuals in the population come into contact with each other.
As part of the formula, the students looked at S (the susceptible population), Z (the zombie population) and D (the dead population), suggesting that the average life-cycle of a zombie would be S to Z to D.
They also examined the time frame over which individuals in the population encounter one another.
However, the initial study did not factor in natural birth and death rates, since the hypothetical epidemic took place over 100 days, resulting in natural births and deaths being negligible compared to the impact of the zombie virus over a short time frame.
Without the ability for humankind to fight back against the undead hordes, the students’ calculations suggest that if global populations were equally distributed then in less than a year the human race might be wiped out.
Grim tidings indeed, but there's an obvious flaw in the thinking; humans are a rowdy lot. As we known from zombie fiction, we're not going to take the undead lying down. Regardless of the odds, people will fight to survive and put the shambling dead in the grave for good.
This was acknowledged in a rather more hopeful follow-up study. In this scenario, the students introduced new parameters, such as the rate in which zombies might be killed, and people having children, within the nightmare scenario. This made human survival more feasible, they found.
The team factored in how over time survivors may also be less likely to become infected after having experience of avoiding or fending off zombies.
They found that it would be possible for the world’s human population to survive the zombie epidemic under these conditions. Eventually the zombie population would be wiped out and the human population would recover.
All's well that ends well, then; except for those poor souls bitten and left for dead. Still, that's a zombie apocalypse for you.
Find the two papers here:
|Posted by Mark Cantrell on March 18, 2017 at 4:15 PM||comments (0)|
Citizen Zero: The Matrix & Me
Rumour has it there’s a reboot of The Matrix on the way. Well, Inspired Quill’s already got it covered, writes Mark Cantrell, with the forthcoming release of a darker, grittier take on AI and virtual reality – Citizen Zero
SOMETIMES, it seems as if I’ve been living in the shadow of The Matrix, at least when it comes to my novel Citizen Zero.
Now, with the paperback release of my work on the cards this year, courtesy of Inspired Quill, I hear it reported that Warner Bros is considering a reboot of the 1999 movie – guys, seriously?
Back in the day, as a 20-something author working on the original draft of Citizen Zero, I’d often have the Wachowski duo’s anarcho-pop classic thrown in my face. There I’d be, telling some acquaintance about the book, and they’d hit me with: “Hey, that sounds like The Matrix.”
It was kind of infuriating. My only response was to look at them bemused and shrug. Well, what else was I supposed to do? I didn’t know the film.
Quite how it escaped my attention back then, I don’t know. Guess I was too buried in my own work. But it’s good in a way; it means I wasn’t in any way influenced by the movie.
For all the resonance that exists between them, Citizen Zero remains very much my own take on virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and the underlying malignancy at work between creators and created.
I should fast forward here for the sake of clarity: when I finally got round to seeing The Matrix (and loving it, incidentally) I got to see where they were coming from. Yeah, I could see the similarities in some of the themes that inspired people to come up with the comparison, but I also saw the huge differences; when all’s said and done, my novel is a different beast entirely.
Citizen Zero is grittier. My novel is a social satire, a very British political thriller, as much as it a sci-fi dystopia. It’s a critique of the here and now: a wake-up call from a burning tomorrow. The story doesn’t pit humanity in a life or death struggle against AI overlords; no, the relationship between man and machine in Citizen Zero is nothing so binary.
Dare I suggest that Citizen Zero’s depiction of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and our place within its inception is far darker than anything we find in The Matrix? Yes, I rather think I dare. Eat that, Neo.
Citizen Zero is a dark novel; deceptively so, I hope, as it draws you in to the intrigues and the paradoxes of its tangled realities. It really isn’t anything like The Matrix, despite the surface similarities of its tropes. Of course, this isn’t going to stop me invoking the movie as a metaphor to help plug you into its mindset.
Or, rather, to name-drop another movie to complete my metaphor: Citizen Zero is like a cross between The Matrix and V for Vendetta. Hopefully, that’s not too bitter a pill for you to swallow.
|Posted by Mark Cantrell on March 10, 2017 at 4:50 PM||comments (0)|
Charity report argues inequality is a matter of life and death
Debt, bad housing, low pay and insecure employment, it’s a toxic syndrome pushing people to the brink of suicide, argues a new report from the Samaritans. It presents a direct challenge to a society seemingly relaxed about rising inequality, writes Mark Cantrell
LIFE gets us all down sometimes, but for some of us it can become overwhelming, and it’s those at the bottom of the heap who are likely to have the least resilient support network.
As a new report from the Samaritans puts it, social inequality is driving people to suicide – and something needs to be done about it.
Dying From Inequality, as the report is called, was formally launched today, though the charity made a summary available online ahead of Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Budget on Wednesday. It argues a clear link between inequality and a higher risk of suicide. The full report is available HERE (PDF).
According to the Samaritans, Government, businesses, industry and sector leaders, need to become more aware of the risks of suicide, and take a hand in directing support to those with unstable employment, insecure housing, low incomes, or who otherwise live in areas of socio-economic deprivation.
“Suicide is an inequality issue that we have known about for some time, this report says that’s not right, it’s not fair and it’s got to change,” said Ruth Sutherland, chief executive of the Samaritans.
“Most importantly this report sets out, for the first time, what needs to happen to save lives. Addressing inequality would remove the barriers to help and support where they are needed most and reduce the need for that support in the first place. Government, public services, employers, service providers, communities, family and friends all have a role in making sure help is relevant and accessible when it matters most.”
Dying From Inequality is said to be far-reaching and highlights clear areas of risk to communities and individuals. Areas of risk include the closure and downsizing of businesses, those in manual, low-skilled employment, those facing unmanageable debt, and those with poor housing conditions. They all take a toll, and of course, some people face more than one of these life-diminishing problems.
“Everyone can feel overwhelmed at times in their life,” Sutherland added. “People at risk of suicide may have employers, or they may seek help at job centres, or go to their GP. They may come into contact with national and local government agencies, perhaps on a daily basis. So, in the light of this report we are asking key people and organisations from across society, for example those working in housing, in businesses, medical staff, job centre managers, to all take action to make sure their service, their organisation, their community is doing all it can to promote mental health and prevent the tragedy of suicide.”
Samaritans said it has already started addressing the inequalities driving people to suicide, by making its helpline number free to call, by calling on Government for more frontline staff to be trained in suicide prevention in England and by campaigning for local authorities to have effective suicide prevention plans in place.
But as Sutherland suggested above, more needs to be done – it’s a problem way beyond the resources of single charity. Business, civil society, and government all need to be taking a hand in devising a joined-up strategy to ensure that fewer people die by suicide. The question is, do they have the will?
“Each suicide statistic is a person,” Sutherland said. “The employee on a zero hour’s contract is somebody’s parent or child. A person at risk of losing their home may be a sibling or a friend. And each one of them will leave others devastated, and potentially more disadvantaged too, if they take their own life. This is a call for us as individuals to care more and for organisations that can make a difference, to do so.”
The Pears Foundation funded the research and publication of the report, which was put together by eight commissioned experts. These included: Professor Clare Bambra, Public Health, Newcastle University; Dr Amy Chandler, Sociology, University of Edinburgh; Professor Rory O’Connor, Health Psychology, University of Glasgow; Dr Katherine Smith, Social Policy, University of Edinburgh.
The report was co-edited by Stephen Platt, Emeritus Professor of Health Policy Research, University of Edinburgh; Dr Stephanie Stace, Samaritans; and Jacqui Morrissey, Samaritans.
Anyone can contact Samaritans, whatever they’re going through, the organisation can be called FREE any time from any phone on 116 123. Alternatively visit www.samaritans.org to find details of the nearest branch.
|Posted by Mark Cantrell on February 25, 2017 at 1:45 PM||comments (0)|
Millions of strivers are working hard below the breadline, claims study
Millions of people in the UK are not earning enough to provide their families with an adequate standard of living, according to new research for the anti-poverty thinktank, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, writes Mark Cantrell
THEY may not be in abject poverty, but they’re not exactly staying afloat either; they’re the millions of families that can’t afford a decent standard of living, even though most of them are hard at work.
This is the stark reality of life in 21st Century Britain for the Government’s rhetorical ‘strivers’ – the JAMs, those ‘just about managing’ families – it claims it policies are intended to help.
Their situation has been examined in a study into the number of people who find themselves living below the Minimum Income Standard (MIS), despite the official rise in employment that’s been reported over the last few years.
The MIS threshold is different to the poverty line – it is set by Loughborough University's Centre for Research in Social Policy and reflects the amount of income needed to maintain a decent life, based on consultation with members of the public to gauge what they think such a minimum should entail in the UK today.
“It is not the level of income a family needs to ‘survive’,” said Professor Donald Hirsch, co-author of the study. “It’s what you need to have, financially, to give yourself the opportunities and choices to be able to participate in society – so you’re not just living hand-to-mouth, you’re able to have reasonable amount of leisure, eat well and you’re able to dress in a decent way.”
Researchers examined data from the Family Resource Survey, and compared household incomes, and found that some 19 million people – 60% of them working – fell below this threshold.
The figure is based on information gathered between 2008 and 2015, and saw an increase of four million people (a 25% rise) during that period – this is despite employment levels, as measured by official statistics, rising to a record high since the financial crash in 2008.
Prof Hirsch, Matt Padley and Dr Laura Valadez compiled the data in a report written for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – an organisation dedicated to understanding and tackling the causes of poverty.
“Our report has shown a steady growth in the numbers of people with too little income,” said Padley, a research fellow at Loughborough University. “Unfortunately the conditions to the end of the decade still look unfavourable for these groups.
“With forecasts of rising inflation, slowing wage growth combined with cuts to tax credits, the outlook is set to be highly challenging for families whose low incomes mean they are, at best, only just managing to make ends meet.”
The report said that those in work often lack stable earnings at a level sufficient to reach MIS – which has had an impact of a variety of categories of working families.
For example, said Prof Hirsch, a lone parent who works full-time had a 28% chance of being below MIS in 2008/09, but this rose to 42% in 2014/15.
Looking to the future, the team said that between now and 2020, some of the same influences responsible for increasing the number of people living below MIS could cause more men, women and children to fall below the threshold.
They reported that due to the return of inflation, coupled with a rise in the cost of everyday living, for example food, annual household budgets would rise faster than wage increases.
The study says that a higher National Living Wage could help people on low wages, but the benefit will be felt by single people rather than low-income families who rely on tax credits or Universal Credit.
“For a truly shared society, everyone should have the chance to live a decent and secure life,” said Campbell Robb, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s chief executive.
“These stark figures show just how precarious life can be for many families. Government focus on people on modest incomes is welcome, but it cannot be at the expense of those at the poorest end of the income scale: it must remember just about managing today can become poverty tomorrow.
“This could be a very difficult time for just managing families as rising inflation begins to bite into finely-balanced budgets.
“The high cost of living has already helped push four million more people below an adequate income, and if the cost of essentials such as food, energy and housing rise further, we need to take action to ease the strain.
“The Government can help in next month’s Budget by allowing families to keep more of their earnings and ensuring benefits and tax credits keep up with the rising cost of living.”
|Posted by Mark Cantrell on February 19, 2017 at 1:05 PM||comments (0)|
Iranian director’s UK movie premiere is a snub to Brexit and Trump alike
Movie premieres are not usually political affairs, but the screening of an Oscar-nominated feature film by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi in London next week is clearly waving a two-fingered salute at President Trump in the wake of his travel ban – and there’s a singular middle finger aimed at Brexiteer Britain too
By Mark Cantrell
COME Sunday, 26 February, the movie-going crowds are expected to gather in London’s Trafalgar Square for the UK premiere of The Salesman, by the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, but the event symbolises rather more than an appreciation of the cinematic art – it represents something of a gesture of dissent too.
In a way, then, it’s as much a protest rally as it is a movie premiere. The free event was organised by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, in the wake of President Trump’s controversial travel ban, which barred people from seven predominantly Muslim countries – including Iran – from entering the United States.
The ban caused chaos and anguish for thousands of travellers, many with a previously undisputed right to enter the US – including those who have lived and worked in the country for years. It also hit some unlikely visitors, such as the former prime minister of Norway, Kjell Magne Bondevik, who was detained and questioned at Dulles airport earlier this month – because his diplomatic passport showed he had visited Iran in 2014.
As an Iranian national, of course, Farhadi is subject to the possibility of being barred entry to the US, effectively on the whim of its president. US judges have since suspended the ban, provoking Trump’s ire but also his threat to sign a new version into effect sometime in the coming days and weeks, which means those likely affected still face a limbo of uncertainty.
Towards the end of January, the award-winning director announced he was reluctantly boycotting this month’s Oscar’s in solidarity with those affected by Trump’s ban, regardless of whether he himself might be granted special dispensation by the US government to enter the country in order to attend the ceremony.
“Hard-liners, despite their nationalities, political arguments and wars, regard and understand the world in very much the same way,” Farhadi said in his statement, reported in the New York Times (29 January 2017, where the statement is quoted in full). “In order to understand the world, they have no choice but to regard it via an ‘us and them’ mentality, which they use to create a fearful image of ‘them’ and inflict fear in the people of their own countries.
“This is not just limited to the United States; in my country hardliners are the same. For years on both sides of the ocean, groups of hardliners have tried to present to their people unrealistic and fearful images of various nations and cultures in order to turn their differences into disagreements, their disagreements into enmities and their enmities into fears. Instilling fear in the people is an important tool used to justify extremist and fanatic behaviour by narrow-minded individuals.”
The Salesman, which stars Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti in the lead roles of Emad and Rana, is a critically acclaimed movie. It won Best Screenplay at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival while Hosseini won Best Actor. The film has been nominated in the Best Foreign Film category at next week’s Oscar’s.
The movie’s open-air screening at Trafalgar Square (see details below) has been organised by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, with the assistance of actor Lily Cole, producer Kate Wilson, and filmmaker and writer Mark Donne, to foster a spirit of cultural diversity and to reject the kind of narrow-mindedness and division Farhadi alludes to.
The date was picked to coincide with the 89th Academy Awards in Hollywood, with the film shown just hours ahead of this year’s Oscars being handed out (at midnight GMT).
“Screening The Salesman in Trafalgar Square has a great symbolic value for me,” said Farhadi. “The gathering of the audience around The Salesman in this famous London square is a symbol of unity against the division and separation of people. I offer my warmest thanks to the Mayor of London and the cinema community for this generous initiative. I welcome and appreciate this invaluable show of solidarity.”
Cole added: "Having grown up in London I have always loved the multiculturalism and openness of this city. I am very heartened that the Mayor of London – and our film community – have stepped up to celebrate that openness and diversity at such a critical political moment. It’s an important and positive signal to send. I look forward to watching Asghar’s film and hope you will join us.”
Donne said: “When I first had the idea for the screening, it was as a filmmaker, a Londoner and an individual who cherishes living in an incredibly diverse, open community. To have this event hosted by the Mayor of a city that’s globally synonymous with all of those things is pretty amazing. Asghar Farhadi is an incredible storyteller. I hope his work showing in this city, at this moment, sends a tremendous international signal of unity and tolerance."
Khan, of course, isn’t missing the opportunity to plug London to the world. The premiere is as much about declaring ‘business as usual’ for the capital as a world city in the wake of Brexit, as it is a chance to declare solidarity with the people impacted by the prejudice denoted in President Trump’s travel ban. London is open, the Mayor is saying; as much to reassure an international audience as a domestic one.
As City Hall points out: “Since the start of his Mayoralty, Sadiq Khan has led Londoners from across the worlds of film, dance, theatre, music, art, sport, retail and even the animal kingdom to say loud and clear that, post-EU referendum, London is open to the world.”
Khan, himself, added: “On the night of the Oscars, it’s absolutely fantastic to be able to screen the UK premiere of The Salesman in Trafalgar Square. I’m delighted to welcome people from across the capital and beyond to share in this celebration of London as an international hub of creativity and as a beacon of diversity.
“Londoners have always prided themselves on their openness to the world, and what better way to do that than to come together to watch this powerful film in one of the world’s most famous public spaces.”
Before the film starts, though, the audience, which is expected to be some 10,000-strong, will hear speeches and readings from some of London’s high-profile actors and directors, including the award-winning director, Mike Leigh; well, it does have an aspect of the rally about it, after all.
“It is to the Mayor of London's tremendous credit that he is hosting this special premiere screening of The Salesman in Trafalgar Square, said Leigh. “My friend Asghar Farhadi, whom I have known since we served together on the jury of the 2012 Berlin Film Festival, is one of the world's greatest film makers.
“For those of us who make movies about real life, real people and real issues, he is the master – a true inspiration to all of us. The Salesman is compelling, moving and entertaining, and I urge everybody in our capital to come and enjoy it in Trafalgar Square. We must show solidarity with Asghar and his principles, and against divisiveness and hate.”
Indeed. Let’s make hatred a no show, wherever we happen to be.
The screening of The Salesman begins at 4.30pm in London’s Trafalgar Square and will end at 6.35pm. ‘Doors’ open at 3pm. People are advised to wrap up warm on the day, and to arrive early to grab their spot, as places are offered on a first-come-first served basis.
For those unable to make it to Trafalgar Square, distributor Curzon Artificial Eye said it will be organising screenings of The Salesman across the country on the 26 February. For more information, visit: www.thesalesmanfilm.co.uk.
FREE – first come, first served. Arrive early to grab a spot, the organisers advise
Trafalgar Square, London. Doors open at 3pm. Speeches from 4pm. Screening from 4.30pm (2hrs 5mins)
Blurb: Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) returns with The Salesman, a characteristically taut drama exploring how unexpected cracks can form in the foundations of a seemingly happy marriage.
The future looks promising for amateur actors Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) as they prepare for opening night on their production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
However, when dangerous work on a neighbouring building forces the couple to leave their home and move into a new apartment, a case of mistaken identity sees a shocking and violent incident throw their lives into turmoil.
What follows is a series of wrong turns that threaten to destroy their relationship irreparably. Winner of the Best Screenplay and Best Actor awards at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, Farhadi’s study on the potent power of pride, guilt and shame treads the line between arresting drama and revenge thriller with masterful ease.
Watch the UK trailer over on YouTube.
Images courtesy of Curzon Artificial Eye
|Posted by Mark Cantrell on February 4, 2017 at 8:05 PM||comments (0)|
But does the job come with an orangutan librarian?
In this world of celebrity, there's clearly still some cachet left in being an author, writes Mark Cantrell; his alma mater, the University of Liverpool, has announced Irish novelist Colm Tóibín will be its next chancellor
The award-winning Irish author Colm Tóibín has been named as the University of Liverpool's next chancellor.
Tóibín, also a journalist and playwright, has written eight novels, including Brooklyn, which won the Costa Novel of the Year in 2009. The work was adapted into an Oscar-nominated movie in 2015.
Several of his works have been shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize and his 2013 Broadway play The Testament of Mary was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play.
Over the course of a career spanning a quarter of a century, Tóibín has been a strong advocate for free expression and LGBT rights, and was hailed as a “champion of minorities” as he collected the 2011 Irish PEN Award.
Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe, courtesy of the University of Liverpool.
A graduate of University College Dublin, Tóibín was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2007. Currently a professor at Columbia University in New York, he has taught at many universities, and was a headline speaker at the University of Liverpool’s inaugural Liverpool Literary Festival last October.
“I feel honoured to have been appointed chancellor of the University of Liverpool. The university has a great deal to be proud of and is a part of an education system that has inspired people all over the world, not least in my own country, Ireland,” he said.
“As a writer and as a citizen, I have greatly benefited from my own time in higher education, and believe that those of us who have experienced the privilege of education should do our best to make sure that others have the same chance. I will do what I can as chancellor to enhance the experience of the students and connect the university’s inspiring work with the city, with society, and with the world outside.”
As chancellor, Tóibín will be the ceremonial figurehead and is expected to serve as an important ambassadorial role, locally, nationally and internationally. His appointment was formally approved by the university’s council and followed a nomination process that took place earlier last year. He succeeds chemist Sir David King.
“Colm is a distinguished writer and public speaker who can connect with a wide global audience,” said Professor Janet Beer, Liverpool University's vice-chancellor.
“His professional achievements, personal qualities and international outlook embody the spirit and values of our university. He will not only be an excellent role model for our students, but will help us achieve our vision to be a connected, global university at the forefront of knowledge leadership.”
|Posted by Mark Cantrell on February 1, 2017 at 3:50 PM||comments (0)|
New technique uncovers 6,000-year-old mysteries of humanity’s transition to metal
Talk about casting light on history, writes Mark Cantrell: when scientists wanted to learn more about how a 6,000 year old copper amulet was made, they turned to a photoluminescent imaging technique used to check semiconductors for defects
AN ancient amulet cast in copper was persuaded to give up its secrets when it was subjected to a new photoluminescent imaging technique based on a method used to monitor semiconductors for defects.
The 6,000-year-old amulet was discovered about 30 years ago in the Mehrgarh area of Baluchistan, in Pakistan, and is the oldest known lost-wax cast object. It dates from a period known as the Copper Age, an era that marked the transition from the Neolithic – stone age – to the Bronze Age.
Lost-wax casting is a method used to duplicate metal sculptures cast from an original model. The technique, also known as ‘investment casting’ is still used to this day – and for some high-tech end uses at that, such as aerospace, aeronautics and biomedicine – using high-performance alloys of steel and titanium.
Researchers from the IPANEMA laboratory and synchrotron SOLEIL at the University Paris-Saclay studied the amulet using the new approach. The project and its findings were presented in a paper published in the journal Nature Communications late last year.
Image: D Bagault © C2RMF
Corrosion of the metal had previously hindered a fuller understanding of the craftwork that went into its creation. But the research on the amulet managed to shed a little light on the invention of this form of high-precision foundry, enabling a greater understanding of the metallurgical sequences used by the pre-Bronze-Age metalworkers.
“Scientists had reached the limits of what they could learn from the amulet with traditional imaging techniques since its discovery three decades ago,” said Mathieu Thoury, one of the authors of the paper. “We designed a full-field photoluminescence approach to look at the object’s structure and composition in greater detail.”
As the paper explains, photoluminescent spectroscopy is a key method for monitoring defects in semiconductors from nanophotonics to solar cells. The thing is, semiconducting materials such as the silicon wafers used in microchip manufacture, are highly pure materials.
However, when it comes to the more complex crystalline structures of ‘messier’ materials, such as those encountered in environmental, medical, ancient materials sciences, and engineering, its “great sensitivity to small variations in local environment” becomes a handicap. The new technique described in the paper is said to overcome that problem.
In collaboration with scientists from C2RMF, Pre-Tech, ArScAn and TRACES laboratories, the IPANEMA team was able to reveal a hidden microstructure by shining light in the UV/visible range, generated by a contrast of luminescence induced by variations of defects within the crystalline structure of the corroded amulet.
This “ghost microstructure”, which was invisible to other advanced imaging techniques, revealed the full metallurgical sequence used in the creation of the amulet and its subsequent degradation during burial.
The technique confirmed that the ‘spoked wheel’ shape of six small rods on a ring of 20-mm diameter had been cast in a single piece. There were no soldered parts. Furthermore, the researchers were surprised to discover that the ancient metalworkers of Mehrgarh had used very pure copper.
Apparently, this has given insight in innovations in metallurgy in these bygone millennia, as the use of high-purity copper was subsequently rejected as the metalworkers of the Pakistan region discovered that adding lead increased the metal’s fluidity.
Located on the SOLEIL synchrotron site at the University Paris-Saclay, IPANEMA is a laboratory dedicated to research and development of advanced methodologies for analysing materials in the fields of archaeology, paleao-environments, palaeontology, and research into cultural heritage. It’s a hi-tech approach to examining the past.
“Although it has never been used in archaeology, the photoluminescence imaging technique developed here holds great promise for this field and other disciplines, including environmental sciences and geophysics,” said Loic Bertrand, another of the paper’s authors.
It’s tempting to suggest: beat that Indiana Jones.
The full paper, “High spatial dynamics-photoluminescence imaging reveals the metallurgy of the earliest lost-wax cast object”, published November 2016, can be read online at Nature Communications.
Image: D Bagault & B Mille © C2RMF
|Posted by Mark Cantrell on January 15, 2017 at 9:25 AM||comments (0)|
Out of time comes the magic of manuscripts
Dead minds will speak again thanks to a collaboration between the British Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France as they digitise 800 illuminated manuscripts, writes Mark Cantrell, but in our desire to understand the present will we read too much between the lines of the past?
BOOKS are time machines, said the late cosmologist, Carl Sagan: open up some ancient tome, and it provides a channel through which the minds of the dead can commune with the living.
Of course, it helps if you can speak the past's lingo. Otherwise you’ll just have to stick to looking at the pretty pictures. That’s the thing about language, it tends to shift; meaning can be a slippery thing at the best of times, especially after a few centuries of cultural and linguistic evolution.
Now make it a foreign language, namely Old French, and throw in a dead one like Latin, and those books become little more than objects d'art. Sometimes, then, for those of us who aren't academic experts, if we're to make that connection and commune with the past then an interpreter is a must.
That brings us to the British Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF). The organisations are collaborating on a project to digitise and disseminate 800 illuminated manuscripts from the years 700 to 1200AD, making them freely available to experts and the general public alike, online, for the first time.
The project is focusing on the centuries before and after the Norman Conquest, and indeed manuscripts produced on either side of the English Channel, because this represents a period of close cultural and political entwinement, according to the British Library. In this period, scribes were moving between England, France and Normandy, and were working in Latin and French on manuscripts the library described as of “unparalleled beauty and sophistication”.
“[The collaboration] will bring together manuscript treasures from a time when the cultural, political and religious interchange between Britain and France was unfolding at many levels,” said Roly Keating, the British Library’s chief executive.
“The illuminated manuscripts that our respective institutions hold are remarkable survivals from that period and bring it to life in a way that few other artefacts can. Making them freely available online will allow scholars to make new connections and will allow a much wider audience to explore the medieval world preserved in these pages.”
Illuminated initial 'B'(eatus) and full border at the beginning of Psalm 1, Canterbury, early 11th century (British Library Arundel MS 155, f. 12r)
The project has been funded by The Polonsky Foundation, a UK-registered charity that primarily supports cultural heritage and scholarship. Its support will result in the creation of two websites where the manuscripts will be freely visible to anyone interested in exploring the texts.
The BNF will create a new bilingual website that will allow side-by-side comparison of 400 manuscripts from each collection, selected for their “beauty and interest”. Meanwhile, the British Library is going to develop a bilingual site aimed at a general audience that will feature highlights from the most important of these manuscripts, along with articles commissioned from leading experts. Both websites will be launched by November 2018.
The new project will add to the growing numbers of manuscripts being made available in full online. More than 8,000 items are currently available via the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website; while many thousands of items are similarly available from the BNF's website Gallica.
“Through this ambitious digitisation project funded by The Polonsky Foundation, we are committing all the BNF’s scientific and technological expertise to make accessible to everyone these invaluable treasures from our medieval collections alongside those of the British Library,” said Laurence Engel, the BNF's president.
Dr Leonard Polonsky, chairman of the Polonsky Foundation, added: “Our Foundation is privileged to be supporting these two leading institutions in preserving the riches of the world's cultural heritage and making them available in innovative and creative ways, both to scholars and to a wider public.”
Quite what these manuscripts will have to say, well, time will tell. The writings of those scribes living and working in the late Dark Ages and the Medieval period will have little to say to us directly about the here and now, but you might say this was an era when the foundation stones of modern Europe and Britain were laid.
At the very least, we'll gain a glimpse into our origins, but in the echoes of those dead minds released from their tombs of parchment and ink, we might perceive something of what it's like to live in a time of transition, when the old ways are crumbling and something new begins to emerge out of the dust.
Naturally, we have a curiosity about the past, and these manuscripts open a window in time through which we can gain a glimpse of history as it was lived. Of course, can we trust the scribes of that age? After all, there was politics and prejudice, agendas and post-truth squabbles in centuries gone, much as there is today.
What's more, we live in an age of ructions and changes; inevitably we might seek to gain an insight into our present from these texts written at the 'dawn' of the European era. But what can scribes living and working in a time before print, let alone the internet, have to say about life and society and political relations in the fractured years of the 21st Century? Little, really, but you never know – we might learn something about who and what we are today.
For the most part, the past is the past. But we are what we are, and that is a species determined to find meaning out of the mayhem, using whatever materials we have to hand When it comes to ancient manuscripts, we should just be careful not to read in too much between the lines.
This is now, that was then. Indulge our curiosity, but let's just appreciate where we came from and think hard about where we're going.
Meanwhile, don’t forget to enjoy the pretty pictures.
Copyright © December 2016. All Rights Reserved.
Illuminated initial 'I'(nitium) with dragons and human masks in medallions, England or France, late 12th century (British Library, Royal MS 4 D II, f. 2v)
Images courtesy of the British Library
|Posted by Mark Cantrell on December 27, 2016 at 7:10 PM||comments (0)|
Read a book and make a dream come true
Where did all the time go? Mark Cantrell ponders the strange temporal reality in his novel Silas Morlock...
REMEMBER what Einstein had to say about relativity and time? Well, this has nothing to do with any of that, so put down that beautiful blond, whoever she (or he) happens to be, and pay attention. This won't take long. Relatively speaking.
I want to talk about the temporal relations of Terapolis. So, deep breath. Time isn't the same in the city of Silas Morlock, you see. It's measured, it passes, much the same as it does in our frame of reference, but that's clocks for you, not time.
The city isn't that old by our measure, but it feels ancient, a place where the weight of time immemorial presses the juice out of your soul. In Terapolis, so much more of that timey-wimey stuff has slipped through the neck of the hourglass than is tallied in the count of actual days, weeks, months, years since the city came into being.
The residents don't notice, not really. They're too busy leading their lives, such as they are, yearning for their next session within The Gestalt. Time is just the ticking hands of the clock, counting out the long emptiness between those longed-for periods of escape. This mysterious and esoteric technology offers release from the darkness of this dread city, it shapes their lives, takes people out of themselves, gives them a reason to keep plodding along.
You might say that every day is Monday in Terapolis; The Gestalt is Friday concentrated and turbocharged. Little wonder, when you consider the environment. Yeah, it's no place for people suffering with SAD.
For those of you who don't know, Terapolis is a city of organic skyscrapers, clustered as dense as a primeval forest, musty. Down in its depths, the light of the living day is absorbed long before it reaches ground so that humanity lives in a world with little natural light. Neon and an eerie bioluminescence play havoc with the body clock. With no external reference – the sun, the moon – the body's rhythms slip into a rough 25-hour cycle, but at least in Terapolis you don't have to worry about time zones – or jet lag.
At this point it's probably worth noting that Terapolis is a city of trans-continental proportions. As Caxton says in the book, Terapolis “absorbed the cities of history, swallowed entire nations, embalmed continents, and somewhere along the line we stopped noticing; we had The Gestalt by then”. And, of course, The Gestalt has us – body and soul.
In some respects, Terapolis is The Gestalt; or to put it another the way The Gestalt is Terapolis. The city and the machinery of humanity's penultimate release are fundamentally intertwined. You can't have one without the other. Both are the manifestations of an underlying reality external yet intrinsic to our own fabric of space and time. The Gestalt warps reality; it breaks the rules – all of them – and allows us to do the same. Well, Silas Morlock is a novel; that's what novels do.
Lorelei isn't far wrong when she tells Boris that The Gestalt offers a gateway to transcendence – and the scope to become like Gods. Human nature being what it is, dark gods are no doubt the order of the day. We find ourselves in The Gestalt. Well, we find some thing, and it's different for every one of us; whatever it is, though, it keeps us coming back for more.
Of course, The Gestalt's blessings come at a price – but if you want to know what it'll cost you to release your soul, you'll need to read the book. For now, it's enough to know that some of that price is the dreary truth of daily existence in Terapolis. No wonder the city presses heavy with the weight of ages, but there's a little more to it than the psychological burden of living in such an unearthly place. Sorry for the mind-fuck, but Terapolis really is an antediluvian city, even though its origins are scarcely more than a few decades gone.
The city, as a global phenomenon, isn't that much older than Adam. I always envisioned him as pushing 30 (a bit of a slacker with a lot of growing up to do, too, but that's another story). You wouldn't expect him to recall the world as it was before. People of an older generation just don't have that excuse, but in their defence they are living in a preternatural environment.
Memory is a fickle critter at the best of times. In the city of The Gestalt, centuries of time have passed for every decade of lived experience. Caxton's generation once dwelled in a world similar to our own, but in their subjective (relative) reality, living memory has dissipated almost beyond recall.
That's the thing about time, wherever you are; it keeps its own pace. In Terapolis, you've got all the time in the world, rushing you headlong to that moment when there's no time at all. So, don't look back, just make the most of those moments to hand until you can lose yourself again in The Gestalt.
On some level, the inhabitants feel it, this discord in the flow of time; a sense of life stretched beyond its natural vitality, of a soul diminished. Not that many of them retain the capacity to articulate this sense of dissonance, of course, except as a need to hurl themselves back into The Gestalt. It's a refuge for the lost and the deeper we burrow into its promise the more lost we become. You just know, it can't end well.
Okay, I admit it: underneath all the metaphysics, The Gestalt is a metaphor for consumerism, but there is a simple antidote. Caxton pushes the most powerful drug ever used by mankind. A veritable poison for The Gestalt, it breaks the hold it has on us; little wonder it had to be driven underground literally and metaphorically.
The stuff Caxton sells alters the mind, expands consciousness, transcends time, opens a channel to the dead; it feeds the soul and sets us free. Luckily, living in the here and now, we don't need to go find our fix in the shaded underbelly of our cities and towns, not like Adam going out of his wits as he searches for his dealer. No, we can find this mind-altering material on every high street, in countless retail stores, online, in libraries, and on the shelves of like-minded friends.
Want to know the secret? Time is no object, we make our own. All we gotta do is grab a book and read. You might want to start with Silas Morlock. Let him light the way towards a wealth of worlds – and spark a fire in the forge of imagination.
2 January 2016
Copyright © January 2016. All Rights Reserved.
Image courtesy of Pixabay
This article first appeared on the Inspired Quill blog in 2016
|Posted by Mark Cantrell on December 3, 2016 at 9:20 AM||comments (0)|
Could Genetically Modified Bacteria Grow The Cities Of Tomorrow?
Researchers are looking to use genetically modified bacteria to grow the foundations for new buildings. It's like something straight out of his novel Silas Morlock, writes Mark Cantrell
WE'RE a far cry from the organic bio-engineered architecture prevalent in Terapolis, the foreboding world city in my novel, Silas Morlock, but a team of scientists are almost literally preparing to lay its foundations.
In the future, if their research pays off, then the foundations for buildings won't be poured as concrete, but will be grown by “pressure responsive” bacteria, of a species found in our gut – E Coli.
A team of scientists from Newcastle and Northumbria universities, led by architecture academic Dr Martyn Dade-Robertson, are investigating how they can create a new kind of material – so-called biocement – where engineered cells react to changes in the environment and strengthen the soil around them.
“This is really exciting research,” said Dr Dade-Robertson, who is a Reader in Design Computation at Newcastle University's School of Architecture, Planning & Landscape.
“We are trying to create a responsive material which could have broad architectural applications, for example creating foundations for buildings without needing to dig trenches and fill them with concrete.”
The team says they have identified dozens of genes in E. Coli bacteria that are regulated by pressures of 10atm (that's 10 times that of sea level). Using this, they are modifying the bacteria to create a ‘gene circuit’ that would enable the bacteria to respond to their environment by producing ‘biocements’.
The importance of this research might go much further, however. As part of the project the researchers have developed a new type of Computer Aided Design (CAD) application.
The application models pressures and stresses within a volume of soil under a building and maps different types of gene expression – predicting where the bacteria are likely to produce materials.
“The application hints at new way of doing design,” Dr Dade-Robertson added. “Imagine designing structures at the scale of a building by altering the DNA of microscopic bacteria cells.
“Such a technology would push well beyond the current state of the art and challenge a new generation of engineering designers to think at multiple scales from molecular to the built environment and to anticipate civil engineering with living organisms.”
There's only one thing left to say. That city: “It's alive!”
Thinking Soils: A synthetic biology approach to material-based design computation by Martyn Dade-Robertson, Helen Mitrani, Anil Wipat, Aurelie Guyet, Javier Rodriguez Corral (Newcastle University, UK) and Meng Zhang (Northumbria University, UK,) was presented at the ACADIA conference in Michigan, USA, on 28 October 2016.
|Posted by Mark Cantrell on November 25, 2016 at 4:30 PM||comments (0)|
All of Manchester is but a stage
A Manchester theatre is opening its doors to talent with a new development programme it says will allow theatrical types at all stages of their career the opportunity to practice and expand their skills.
HOME is offering a variety of ways for theatre-makers to develop their skills, with a package that features one-off skills workshops, long-term development residencies, and regular opportunities to showcase work, whether it is new or in progress.
The aim is to support the professional development of artists from across the region, as well as nationally, throughout the coming year.
Organisations backing the development programme include the Foyle Foundation, the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation, and the Garrick Charitable Trust.
“We want HOME to be a creative hub where local and world-class talent of all backgrounds and disciplines are discovered, nurtured and showcased, coming together to create new work and experiences,” said Walter Meierjohann, HOME's artistic director, theatre.
Highlights of the forthcoming programme include 'T1Commission 2019', and 'Made at HOME'.
The former is a pilot for two-year residency for one theatre maker to take part in a tailored development programme. It will lead to the commission of a piece of work for HOME’s Theatre 1 stage.
The latter, meanwhile, is a research and development programme for mid-career theatre makers to experiment and explore cross-artform ideas and collaborations. It will run alongside a series of specialist skills workshops, and directors’ residencies in partnership with the JMK Trust.
The new programme will also present training courses and theatre festivals including 'Orbit', which will feature “some of the most exciting and critically acclaimed productions from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and beyond”, and 'PUSH', a two-week festival of new and “extraordinary experiences shining a light on regional talent”.
HOME said its new programme will also include a variety of industry-focused skills workshops, which will “connect our regional artists with practitioners making work for our stages, screens and galleries”.
In further developments, HOME said it is welcoming two new associate companies to its ensemble. The first of these is 1927 (Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, The Magic Flute, Golem), and the second is Mighty Heart Theatre (When I Feel Like Crap I Google Kim Kardashian Fat, What’s The Matter With You?).
Both are said to challenge the conventions of theatre making with “burning social and political issues” at their core.
The two join existing associates Quarantine, which is said to be Manchester’s leading experimental theatre company.
Meanwhile, actor Katie West is joining HOME as associate artist. She first took to HOME’s stage in the UK premiere of Chamaco, by Cuban playwright Abel González Melo, as part of ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Festival 2016. Her recent credits include the Royal Exchange Theatre, the Almeida Theatre and Manchester International Festival.
Another creative endeavour that is coming HOME is Mothers Who Make. This is described as a peer support group and creative exchange session for mothers who are artists, writers, painters, actors, dancers, filmmakers and photographers. It will aim to give creative mothers the chance to explore their practice in a room with their children.
With the help of the funding from the Foyle Foundation, HOME said external guest speakers will be invited to talk about their journey of being an artist and a mother, providing insight on national initiatives they have been a part of or set up, and is expected to be a catalyst for conversation within that session and beyond.
Meierjohann added: “The T1 Commission is a one-of-a-kind pilot project which will provide a unique opportunity to create work for our stage in Theatre 1. Made at HOME will allow theatre makers to experiment free from the pressure of public performance, and Artist Connect will feature a range of beneficial, one-off skills workshops.
“We’re very excited that the Foyle Foundation is supporting our mission to truly be a HOME for all, and very much look forward to exploring our new partnerships with 1927, Mighty Heart Theatre and Katie West.”
Photo: Chamaco (Kiddo), production still. Photo credit Graeme Cooper