My First Failed Career

Still not quite finished with that attic, would you believe. Right now I’m cleaning and repacking my old darkroom equipment. Not sure why. Did anything ever become so suddenly and so profoundly obsolete?

Maybe one day it’ll be retro-chic to take analogue pictures. After all, it had so many aspects you just don’t get with digital processing. Like handling poisonous chemicals in the dark. The gear seems OK, mostly. A few negatives chewn¹ by rats who apparently thought film was still made out of cellulose. No harm really, they were of a band I’d covered for a magazine in about 1984. Goth, but with lingering traces of New Romantic. Robert Smith Hair and Simon Le Bon pants. What I’m saying here basically is that the tooth-marks of rats have improved these images.

I wanted to be a photographer for several years. Right up until the day in fact that I finally understood it was real work. You’re running around with a box that has about fifteen knobs on it, trying to capture the moment. Set one wrong, and you lose. This is stressful.

And the costs! The film costs money, the developing costs more money. The printing costs really fantastic amounts of money. Eventually I did my own developing and printing, but it didn’t save much and it was even more hard work – especially as I’d had to settle for the cheapest, crappiest equipment going. This LPL 3301D enlarger didn’t even cast an even light, which is really the least you should expect. Possibly the worst thing ever made in Japan.

I don’t think of myself as a photographer any more, yet ironically I take far more pictures these days. Because I can. Since my camera turned into a phone the cost has become too small even to quantify – plus I actually have it when I see something worth photographing. And whether doing it more has improved my eye or just the odds, I think I get better results. Take that one up at the top there, from last April. That’s closer to being a good photograph than anything I ever took with a proper roll film SLR.

This is a new golden age of photography. And it happened so fast. Imagine if I’d appeared in my darkroom and said to my younger self “Some day soon you’ll take better pictures with a telephone.”

Actually I did, but at the time I just put it down to the chemicals.

  1. I’m quite convinced it’s a word.

Adding One Word Turns Science Into Bullshit

©William Murphy, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license
Met Éireann's headquarters were modelled on the Death Star

I was wondering what Gaddafi was really up to when he declared a ceasefire. Taking a chance to regroup perhaps, or attempting to bargain? In fact it was something a whole lot more audacious: He would continue to kill people, while saying “Stop fighting back, this is a ceasefire”.

Meanwhile for some reason, the Independent thinks it’s clever to publish the headline “Explosion could send contamination to Ireland“, as if there was actually some reason to fear that happening.

The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland said it was “extremely unlikely” that any material being released from the nuclear plant would have health implications here.
But Met Éireann forecaster Pat Clarke warned that if an explosion occurred, Ireland could be affected.
“If there was an explosion of up to 30,000 feet, that (material) would be carried (across the world),” he said.

Let’s leave aside the image of 30,000 exploding feet. If we can read even more into his words that has been already, he presumably means an explosion that ejects radioactive debris to a height of 30,000 feet. This would be possible if a Chernobyl-like explosion and fire does occur. Indeed, debris from Chernobyl was carried to the furthest corners of the globe.

Where it did… pretty much nothing.

While it clearly had deadly effect in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus and probably killed in Western Europe too, the fallout was gradually dispersed as it spread, eventually becoming so diluted as to be insignificant next to normal background radiation. So the probability that the explosion of a reactor as far away as Japan will actually harm anyone in Ireland? To use a round number, zero.

Which is what the story here is actually saying – if you ignore the spin. See that “but” in the second sentence of the part quoted? It suggests that this statement disagrees with the previous, that one national agency is contradicting another. That’s what turns these two rather anodyne statements into a story. Ask two different questions, “Can debris from Fukushima hurt us?” (answer: No) and “Could debris from Fukushima get here?” (answer: Yes), then put the two together so that what is actually a reassuring agreement between experts sounds like a worrying conflict. Voilà, news.

Here Are The News

Artist's Impression of a Queen
Artist's Impression of a Queen


While we in Ireland were trying to take a day off, the world elsewhere got on with things. Action on Libya, which apparently is having some effect. This morning the Gaddafi faction claimed they were calling a ceasefire. I trust them about as far as I can throw grenades at them, but it’s a start.

Signs of hope too from Fukushima. Having discussed this with engineers I’m a little more sanguine now that the pool of molten fuel rods isn’t necessarily doomed to burn its way through the Earth’s crust. Still not entirely clear what they can do with it, but at least they don’t consider it to be their most pressing problem.

Er, I think that’s a good thing.

And of course, not unrelated to the day that was in it, President Obama made a date to visit Ireland next year because, like all American Presidents, he is part Irish. In his case, 1/32nd part. It amazes me how successful Ireland has been at creating this image of being a place where people come from. Just about every single US President had some English ancestry, usually a lot, but I’ve yet to see one of them stand outside 10 Downing Street and say “You know, I’m always glad to come here because there’s a little English in me too”.

One perhaps unfortunate element is that the visits by the US President and the Queen of England will be within a week of each other. So if you have any sort of even slight association with a Muslim political organisation, and don’t want searchlights poked up your every orifice, that might be a very good week to take a holiday.

Don’t Panic – But Do Walk Away

The China Syndrome
Image via Wikipedia

If I was in Tokyo right now, I fucking wouldn’t be. It sounds like they’re rapidly losing control of the situation at Fukushima. With the cooling system gone, the fuel stored at the number four reactor first melted and has now gone critical – that is, it’s acting like a nuclear reactor itself, generating vast amounts of heat and radiation. And the occasional explosion.

So now they have a pool of self-heating molten metal that is too dangerous to approach. It is hard to imagine what exactly they are going to do about that.

It looks like we could see China syndrome here. Except of course in Japan it is somewhere near the Falklands Islands syndrome. There is a real possibility that Fukushima is going to become the worse nuclear accident ever. And it is close to one of the greatest cities on Earth.


The Argument For Nuclear Energy 1

Nuclear CartoonIt was not the best day to argue for nuclear energy.

However Philip Walton, emeritus prof of physics at NUIG¹ and son of Irish Nobel laureate Ernest Walton², appeared on national radio last Friday to do just that. News of Japan’s reactor emergency was just coming in at this point, but the appearance was part of a campaign that he and two other physicists had launched at NUIG on Wednesday, so cancelling was really out of the question.

It all seemed a little surreal.

We should not of course let circumstances carry the debate. There are strong arguments in favour of using nuclear fission to generate electricity. Walton is perfectly right to say that all other methods have their risks and their costs too.

The debate is really over how you quantify those costs, and one person’s convincing argument is another’s canard. Walton for instance says that more people are killed mining coal in China every year than in the whole history of the nuclear industry. This may be true – but should we really take greater risks here just because the Chinese have an appalling safety record?

The argument needs to be broken down further:

  • Does the world need nuclear to avert global warming and/or replace fossil fuels?
  • Assuming the answer is yes, do we need to have a nuclear generator here?

The first part is of course enormously controversial right now, and is going to get more so.

I will try to deal with it tomorrow.

  1. The National University of Ireland, Galway. (My own alma mater, as it happens.)
  2. (As in Cockcroft and)

Accident and Design

It is weird how people focus on the nuclear angle. One Irish news programme even got a radiological official on to assure us that we wouldn’t be in any danger here. We really have no sense of proportion about radiation – and I speak as someone who is not in favour of nuclear electricity generation. This is against a background of perhaps 10,000 actual deaths caused by the natural disaster. So far it’s only been reported that 160 people may have even been exposed to some level of radiation.

For sure, questions do need to be asked about why such an earthquake-prone country is so dependent on this energy source. And it is also true that the nuclear threat is a human element in the story, a preventable disaster.

But we shouldn’t overlook the preventable disaster that was prevented. An earthquake and a tsunami of unprecedented size struck one of the most densely populated places on the Earth. There might easily have been millions dead.

In a place where almost all habitable land is coastal there is little one can do to stave off a tsunami, short of abandoning the country altogether. But buildings can be designed to withstand tremors. They were, and they did so brilliantly. Compare this to Christchurch where they were not anticipating an earthquake and so hadn’t built for it. Amid this tragedy, Japan can take some comfort in the fact that tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives were saved.

This Is Your Brain On Screen

IBM has a really interesting – and just slightly scary – plan. In cooperation with Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, they want to simulate the human brain.

They’re building a computer model. This is not the same thing as Artificial Intelligence (AI), programming a machine to act human. That would be a ‘top down’ approach; trying to understand how the mind works by looking at what it does. Instead this is ‘bottom up’, simulating the nuts and bolts of the brain, its biological wiring, its cells, even its molecules.

Which is quite an undertaking – in fact it is hard to exaggerate how big the task is. The brain is often described as the most complex thing in the known universe. Complexity is a thing that’s difficult to define but easy to perceive. Looking into the back of a TV, you’re instantly aware that it’s more complex than say a food mixer. Basically it looks more tricky to fix. The parts are small, numerous, and connected together in many different ways. Perhaps that’s the most intiuitive shorthand measure of complexity – the number of different ways that the parts of something interconnect. The human brain has far more connected parts than any other thing known, certainly more than any computer. Even Japan’s Earth Simulator, built to model the climate of the entire planet, is nothing compared to the brain of an average person.

It’s no surprise therefore that they aren’t trying to do the whole thing at once, or anything approaching that. They are starting with the best bit though: the neocortex (also called the cerebrum), the outside layer of the brain that’s most recent in evolutionary terms. It’s not unique to us, but it is far more developed in humans than in any other animal and appears to be responsible for what we experience as thought.

Even alone though, this is still far too complex for current technology to tackle. All they’re hoping to simulate right now is what’s known as a neocortical column. This can be described as a single ‘circuit’ of the brain, one of its processing units. The whole neocortex contains about a million of these. And for the moment at least, they only plan to model it on the level of its cells; to get down to the molecules that make up the cells will take vastly more computational power again. Yet even this is an immensely ambitious target. To model just one circuit of the brain in this (relatively) simple way will require four whole modules of Blue Gene – the technology IBM used to take the title of world’s fastest supercomputer back from the Earth Simulator.

So how far are we then from modelling the whole brain? Well assuming this first stage succeeds – it won’t be easy – all they really need to do is scale it up. Vastly. These four Blue Gene racks would fit in a normal kitchen. Four million? They would take up a golf course, and require the energy of five medium-sized power stations.

When you consider that your actual brain fits inside your head and runs reasonably well on sandwiches and cups of tea, you realise what a gap there is between nature’s technology and our own.

What’s the point then in going to all this trouble when a brain can be made much more cheaply using just two humans? If the object were to create machines that think, this would clearly be a madly inefficient way to go about it. But that’s not the object. The fact is we know amazingly little about how our own brains work. Simulating a part of one, even a solitary neocortical circuit, will teach us so much about what is really going on in there. Modelling allows you to find out why something is the way it is, because it can show you what would happen if it were different. The beneficial applications of that are obvious; as we see how it works, we gain greater insight into why it fails – what causes schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, autism, the things that plague our minds.

But though it’s always good when research has palpable benefits, I think we need no  such excuse when it comes to researching the structure and function of the brain. To know ones own mind – that is surely a philosophical imperative.

(For more fun with human brains, see the comic strip)