the site of Adam Stevens


On Voting

I’ll admit, the recent celebrity interest in voting has got me riled. That’s where this comes from.

Last week, I found something strange happening. I found myself agreeing with everything Russell Brand said/wrote, only weeks after the same thing happened (that time tinged slightly with a little self-aware hypocrisy, but still).

I was amazing how well his views matched my own. I am utterly disheartened and disenfranchised with the current democratic system.

There was one significant difference though. I have voted. Only once mind, and I’m never going to do it again.

I voted. I voted for a Party (not a candidate, because who really does that?), a Party whose manifesto had fairly closely matched my views, and, shockingly, that Party (through a quirk of our electoral system) actually won some power. And then immediately set to work doing the exact opposite of everything that they had promised, all in the name of “Coalition Compromise”.

Before this point I had only had one chance to vote in a general election, and I chose not to take it. I wish now that I had spoilt my ballot, if only to have some counter-argument against those that would assess that I had “squandered the liberties that people fought wars for” or some other such guff. In that election I was represented by no candidate, or rather, the only candidate that did in any way represent me had zero chance of winning (how many times do we hear that?) and therefore would be a wasted vote.

My point here is nicely summarised by Aaron Sorkin (or whoever wrote the line) in the West Wing: “Because I’m tired of it: year after year after year after year having to choose between the lesser of who cares.” If my only choice is between several candidates or parties that offer me nothing, that represent nothing that I hold dear, or that (it turns out) only say that they represent these things, why should I choose at all? Why can I not choose to do something different? The mindset here is epitomised, for me, by the fact that it is even vaguely considered that someone would choose to vote in a particular direction to prevent the other candidate or party winning. That is just madness.

I am represented by no-one. Who should I vote for?

The Tories, who are systematically destroying everything that is I believe is good about this country?

New Labour, who have shown nothing but a distinct lack of spine in almost any capacity since they began (and I can offer no better criticism of New Labour than this wonderful article)?

I won’t even mention the other party (because there are only three, right?), since they literally disgust me so much (so much that I actually wrote a letter).

The Greens?

In fact, why does Party politics even exist? The infantile back and forth in the House of Commons during debates makes me question why anyone would think that was a good idea. In some ways it could be good and allow for structured disagreements, which are good. Instead it just homogenises perspectives and gives us (essentially) two groups of people who cannot hope to represent the majority of the populace in one fell swoop. Why do we not just have independent candidates that can actually speak for their constituents instead of having to do political battle with whip counts and party lines? Why do we have a “government” and an “opposition”? There are never just two sides to an argument.

The arguments against voting generally go along the lines that to change the system you should do so from inside. That you have to engage with the process to change it. This is so facile that it makes my face itch. “Democracy” as it stands in our country is an archaic anachronism. You need look no further for a metaphor for the utter banality, contempt, corruption and subservience to money that defines Parliament than the building that our “democracy” works from – the Houses themselves. A crusty, decaying shell surrounding huge gilded chambers where members call each other names from finely upholstered seats across enormous desks of fine wood and even more gilt. An old boy’s club bigger than any other. To hope that this system will change itself from within is foolish when those inside only have things to gain from perpetuating it. I have met and listened to good and true ministers and members of parliament, good people, that do everything they can, that are enthusiastic about the right things and say the right things but can do almost nothing in the face of The System because “that’s just how it works”.

Well I think we need a better system. I think we should demolish the Palace of Westminster (preferably on November 5th, for nothing other than giggles) or at least sell off the contents.I think we should start afresh and let no one near the building who has ever expressed a desire to be a “politician” but rather look for people that want to do good, no matter how they think that might be done. To abandon the ridiculous idea of dividing opinion into discrete units of Political Parties and have real arguments between people that are just trying to do the right thing.

But that’s just me. I don’t know for certain what the better way would look like. And it seems that many people think that’s not ok. Brand’s argument, seemingly to many, including Paxman, is flawed because he doesn’t and can’t describe the Utopia he seeks. But by buying into the current system by engaging with it, we will never get to that point. To even begin to start to see what a better way might look like we need to step away from the old and think differently.

To end, I wanted to pick up on Robert Webb’s snide little comment about Orwell. The whole article is a little snide, but the near-final comment is particular misplaced. Orwell actually wrote remarkably little about voting. He wrote a lot about politics, and I’m sure he would be against Brand’s excessive use of long words (Never use a long word when a short one will do), but I think he would agree with almost all of Brand’s sentiments on Politicians themselves. However, when it came down to it, in 1936, Orwell didn’t vote to send weapons to Spain (not that he could, since national manifestos can only be voted for in a general election or referendum…) or lobby his party to debate in Parliament.  When it really came down to it, Orwell packed his bag and went and did something.

Citizen science

On the back of a short discussion on Twitter following Alice Bell’s great article on Science TV, I’ve been prompted to flesh out my thoughts on the Zooniverse.

Zooniverse is a (growing) repository of projects that aim to involve the general populace in data processing for a diverse range of fields (from galaxies to cyclones to bats).

Let me say, right now, that I don’t want to denigrate Zooniverse. It’s a wonderful idea and has helped to link people to the science that their taxes pay for.

But (and you might have guessed there was a ‘but’ coming), let’s not pretend that it is something that it is not. It’s not, as far as I’m concerned, “citizen science”. It is data crunching, plain and simple, and I think it could be so much more. I’ve had a go at a number of the different projects and they were entertaining for about five minutes, after which I was often left thinking “yes, but what does it mean if that galaxy is elliptical and that one is spiral?” or similar.

Zooniverse often seems to be touted (along with projects like Foldit) as a new paradigm of citizen engagement with science, where non-scientists can really “make a difference”.

The exoplanet hunting part of Zooniverse got a lot of attention last year when it was featured on Stargazing Live and Dara O’Briain and Brian Cox used a lot of very excited adjectives to describe the public response and result of finding (yes, folks!) a whole new planet, which was no doubt exaggerated for televisual effect.

This apparent success clearly meant that this year’s Stargazing Live had to have a new ‘interactive’ element. The result was Planet Four, where people can annotate and categorise orbital pictures of the martian surface, in search of ‘black fans’ that can apparently tell us a lot about what’s going on. Some of my colleagues had some… interesting things to say about the project, but I hate throwing out baseless criticism, so here’s my attempt to be a little constructive.

It was hailed on this year’s Stargazing Live as another huge success (though nothing was said other than “Well done folks, you’ve looked at an awful lots of pictures), in which the UK population had provided a massive help to Mars science. Ignoring the potential issues with the validity of the science behind the whole endeavour, what Planet Four offers is a massive stack of newly categorised HiRise images. We have thousands of these already, thousands still uncategorised, and untold thousands of other images from other Mars missions. There aren’t enough Mars scientists in the world, and the ones there are don’t have enough time, to look at all these images, so yes, the people that take part in Planet Four are performing a valuable service.

These categorised, itemised images, though, are what happens before the science starts. Looking at these images, clicking, sorting, categorising, isn’t the science. The science is in the interpretation that happens afterwards. Connecting people to the science behind their Zooniverse clicks is difficult, and requires careful thought, probably from people cleverer than I, but sometimes it can be something simple.

Planet Four is apparently aiming to map “features [that] indicate wind direction and speed”. So why not ask people to say what they think the wind direction is? Add a button to the side to add an arrow (or more than one) to the picture to show the wind direction. Better yet, let them compare two images and say which one has a stronger/faster wind. Yes, ‘scientists’ might balk and say that people can’t make these kind of inferences without all the necessary information and a background in planetary science, but it would have the potential to provide interesting results and lifts the activity from mere number crunching to people making real inference from real data.

This simple change, I feel, would elevate the whole exercise, making it real science and stopping what I think is somewhat patronising slave labour. I’m sure others could come up with better, more insightful ways of doing this, for the other Zooniverse projects as well, but let’s not lose sight of the aim of really connecting people to the actual science, not just the data collection bit at the beginning.

EDIT: I’ve open this post for comments. I’m interested to hear what you think.


People we like
People we don’t
People that click
People that stick
People we want
People we can’t have

Our lives, a summary
A list of people
Those we meet
And those we keep
The ones we lose
And the ones that make us feel…

Red Mars

I’ve just finished reading Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Again.

It’s one of my favourite books and I’ve read it a couple of times already, the first time when I was probably only 14-15.

It wasn’t until now that I realised what an effect it has had on me.

If you’ve never read it, or never heard of it, I couldn’t recommend it more. Even if you’re not so into sci-fi, I would think you would find something you like about it.

Red Mars, the first part of the Mars Trilogy describes humanity’s colonisation of the Mars. It delves into the political, economic, scientific and personal ramifications of doing so. And I now realise that it’s what made me who I am today.

I remember, I know, that reading Mars, by Ben Bova, is what started my decade long (so far) obsession with the red planet. That definitely came before. But the Bova book is… lighter, ‘pulpier’ than Robinson’s. It only really describes going to Mars–apart from the slightly silly revelation at the end, it is more of an adventure story set on Mars than a story about Mars. The characters are simpler. The situations less complex.

I not aim to criticise – I re-read the book recently with no regrets, and enjoyed the latest sequel, Mars Life, but I understand what the book is.

It is not Red Mars.

On my latest reading I realised that Red Mars is me. It is, in fact, nearly everything about me. It is my dreams, my ambitions. It is my political and economic beliefs. It is the science I love, all of it, and it is the exact combination of science and life that I so desire.

I have often wondered where a lot of this came from. It didn’t come from my parents, or any of my friends, because I share almost none of it with them. Now some of that mystery is answered.

I am Sax. I am Ann. I am Nadia. I am Arkady. I am John. All these people are me, to some extent.

I could go on, at length, until nobody could not be bored. It makes me wonder how much of these people are a part of Robinson himself, and how much are fictional, probably based on people he knows. But the fact that I can map so much of who I am onto this one book.

The other books in the Trilogy, as well as the miscellaneous collection volume The Martians are all in my reading queue, so I will no doubt write more about them.

Weekend diversion: I for one bow to our animal overlords

I saw a crow today, battling with a large stick. It was about three times as long as the crow, and probably weighed about half what the crow did. I stood for maybe five minutes, watching as the crow carefully balanced the stick in its beak, taking its time, moving it around, flying from the ground, first, to a low branch and eventually to the near top of a spindly tree. It was a struggle, or must have been, the bird straining to lift each time, but have what looked to be a gentle touch the whole way through.

It perplexed me. I could see no reason for the crow to want such a big branch. It would be no good for a nest, unless it was a contender for structural support in some kind of crow mansion. In the end, it seemed that there was no reason for the crow to want it–it dropped it, stood for a little while, then flew off.

The episode reminded me of a TED talk I saw a while ago. All the time I was watching, I saw a kind of intelligence underlying what the crow was doing. I didn’t understand it, but could see that at least it knew what it was doing.

The TED talk was all about just this–the unnervingly high intelligence of crows. They adapt quickly, learn to use tools. They learn from each other. Not only do they do all this, but they seem to be getting better at it, and they’re getting better because of us. This is slightly scary.

One of my favourite animals is the octopus. A while ago I read this article, which details the amazing mental faculties of these fascinating animals. I’ve played with some in my travels underwater, and observed some of their amazing behaviour, including their rock gardens and camouflage. According to the article, they have personalities, play with toys, can solve puzzles and seemingly can possess a sense of humour.

None of this was anything compared to sense of dread that developed after watching killer whales hunting on Frozen Planet. The killers work as a team, employ fairly complex fluid dynamical properties, and play with their prey.

At this point I am starting to fear for my life. If any of these creatures decided to, they could probably do us serious harm. More than that though, we walk around our planet with this strange sense of entitlement because we are (or seem to be) ‘intelligent’. Really though, this idea is challenged more and more regularly, and maybe we shouldn’t be so entitled.