Friday, June 14, 2013

Links 14/06/13

NASA research indicates hunks of frozen carbon dioxide -- dry ice -- may glide down some Martian sand dunes on cushions of gas similar to miniature hovercraft, plowing furrows as they go.

A 4-billion-pixel panorama from the Curiosity Mars Rover.

The “dark matter of life” describes microbes and even entire divisions of bacterial phyla that have evaded cultivation and have yet to be sequenced. We present a genome from the globally distributed but elusive candidate phylum TM6 and uncover its metabolic potential. TM6 was detected in a biofilm from a sink drain within a hospital restroom by analyzing cells using a highly automated single-cell genomics platform. We developed an approach for increasing throughput and effectively improving the likelihood of sampling rare events based on forming small random pools of single-flow–sorted cells, amplifying their DNA by multiple displacement amplification and sequencing all cells in the pool, creating a “mini-metagenome.” 

The Hawaiian bobtail squid has an alarm clock made of symbiotic bacteria.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Gesture Art

"The novel is a gesture art. We don’t need to know more about Mr Bingley’s body than that he’s ‘wonderfully handsome’, or (at first) that Hans Castorp looks like ‘an ordinary young man’. We couldn’t describe them to a police sketch artist and expect to get anything back. Gatsby, first spotted, is ‘standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars. Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr Gatsby himself’ – that’s it – while Daisy’s face is ‘sad and lovely with bright things in it’. We project, we fill in. Some writers hardly seem to give their characters bodies at all, or can’t make up their minds about them: Emma Bovary’s eyes are black in one chapter, in other chapters brown or blue."
 From Deborah Friedell's review of Lionel Shriver's Big Brother, London Review of Books.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Masters Of The Measureless Mind

Children ran everywhere. Many wore masks. Two men stripped to the waist were stirring a cauldron of soup with wooden paddles. A woman was selling shaved ice in paper cones. A child was selling garlands of white flowers. A man was selling tea, deftly pouring it into white porcelain cups from the long spout of the pot he balanced on a pad on top of his head. Two ascetics went past, clad in their particoloured robes, tapping a slow beat on small drums tucked under their arms. A woman sat cross-legged, playing an unfretted spike fiddle. Another woman sang an atonal praisesong. There were pairs and trios and quartets of musicians spaced along the grassy verge at the edge of the beach, and men and women stopped to listen and then moved on. Banners hung from tall poles, rattling in the breeze off the lake. The silvery teardrop of a balloon floated high above the tents, reflecting the last of the sunlight, and in the basket hung beneath it a holy man sang a wailing prayer.

As he mingled with the gaudy parade, passing intricately crafted altars and shrines, breathing the odours of sandalwood and incense, woodsmoke and cooking, hearing strange musics drifting on the warm wind, Hari felt an unbounded delight at the rich variety of human imagination. He supposed that his father would have been dismayed by the unabashed veneration of imaginary sky ghosts, the endless elaboration of superstition, the flaunting of pointless scholarship, but it seemed to him that although these people had gathered to honour and exalt their various prophets and gods, what they were really celebrating was themselves. One of the itinerant philosophers who had taken passage on Pabuji’s Gift had once told Hari that small groups of like-minded people generated a gestalt, a group overmind or harmonic mindset that enhanced problem-solving, enhanced empathy, and reduced conflict. A useful survival trait, according to the philosopher, when the ancestors of all human beings had been a few bands of man-apes on the veldts of old Earth. Hari’s father had dismissed this and similar explanations of human behaviour as fairy-tales, but it was easy to imagine a kind of benevolent overmind permeating the encampment, binding everyone to a common purpose.

A small parade was coming down the road. Eight men holding poles on which was balanced a huge red skull with elongated, toothy jaws, followed by men beating drums or tossing firecrackers to the left and right, and a man who swigged a clear greasy liquid from a bottle and touched a burning torch to his lips and breathed out fire. As the crowds parted to let them pass, Hari saw the tent of the Masters of the Measureless Mind on the other side of the road, square and butter-yellow, just as Rav had described it. A black pennant strung from the top of its central pole snapped in the wind.

From Evening's Empires

Monday, June 10, 2013

There Is A Light

I'd been a keen reader of the novels of Iain Banks - Banksie to all who knew him - several years before I met him. I'd read The Wasp Factory in 1985, and his other mainstream works as they appeared, although I didn't begin to read his science fiction until a little later because I was working on my own (inferior) version of regooded space opera and didn't want to be overwhelmed. He was a formidable writer. Confession: I still haven't read Consider Phlebas, so have that, at least, to look forward to. I first met him, glancingly, at a science fiction convention in Liverpool, in 1990. He was the guest of honour, trailed not just by fans but also by a documentary TV crew. I got to know him a little better when I moved to Scotland to take up a job at St Andrews University, and although I was more of an acquaintance than a friend he was always incredibly friendly whenever we met, and I always looked forward to seeing him.

He had that effect on people. He was a fierce and fearless champion of what he thought was right, and for all his self-deprecation was serious about his work, but he was also amusing, tolerant, witty, and overflowing with curiosity and good humour. As Simon Ings wrote, in his excellent appreciation, Iain had no side to him. What he was was what you got. I was lucky enough to interview him at the Hay Festival, once upon a time, and he treated his fans exactly as he treated the great and good of the literary world: as fellow human beings. Like all great writers, he was intensely interested in people, and (like Charles Dickens, like Stephen King) wrote about them and the worlds they inhabited with a clear, direct, colloquial and unmistakable voice.

I last talked to him a few weeks ago, and was glad of the chance; despite the mortal seriousness of his prognosis, he was still cheerful, and witty, and fully engaged. But I also remember another night, back in Scotland, in the 1990s, when Pat Cadigan and I gave readings at one of the Waterstones on Princes Street. Banksie turned up, quite unexpectedly, and took us out to dinner, and plied us with champagne ('because why not?'), and we all had a fine time, and that was how he was. A great writer, and a good and generous man, and now his big bright bold boisterous light has gone out, too soon, too soon.

Iain Menzies Banks, 1954 - 2013
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