Here go I
Frogmarched into a fiftieth year.

Painfully aware
Of time
Slipping like sand
Through open fingers.

Painfully aware
That I am still alone,
Undone,
Half done,
A thin, soft voice
In a loud cacophony.

Painfully aware
Of all that has
Passed me by,
While I slept
And crept
And wept
Through the years
Of my vitality.

Painfully aware
That hopes of love
And warmth
And deepest kisses
Are lost,
Muddied and torn:
The heavy costs
Of compromise.

Painfully aware
That others of my ilk
Never came so far.

Painfully aware
Of the depths
Of my fragility.

I have a small problem with the idea of ‘stories’ and data when it comes to data visualisation. To me, a story is a construct – a neat beginning, middle and end that enables us humans to relay information to each other. The power of stories in human communication is extraordinary. They inspire, they motivate, they change lives. But narratives have a flaw. They don’t need to be right. They don’t need to be accurate or true. The only requirement is to be packaged in a way that makes the audience sit up and listen. This is the reason why TED talks have been so successful, yet so criticised. They are brilliant as a means of conveying information to the audience, but in creating the story behind the presentation, so much may be left out. The audience legitimately might ask ‘that seems almost too perfect. What are they not telling us?’.

Such it is with presenting data. Data is messy. It’s often wrong or inaccurate. It may be tied to a particular question, which is different to the question you are trying to ask. It may show answers that are unintuitive and inconvenient. Data is at war with narrative, or more precisely, it doesn’t care about narrative.

So when presenting your data, be sensitive to the clash between the story you would like to show and what the data is saying (or not saying). As a rule, when presenting data honestly, you should start with everything. Give your audience a chance to see the bigger picture in all its glory and chaos before you dive into the detail. Allow them to ask questions, and work at creating a consensus. Where you see something interesting, gain agreement with them that they can see it too. Be alert to questions from them that might lead to new investigations and new interpretations.

Your job as a data presenter is to show signals in noise, not to eliminate the noise completely. By eliminating the inherent messiness of data for the supposed benefit of the audience, you might just insult their intelligence instead. You also step down a path of deception – careful editing of information – so uncomfortable questions need not be asked. 

That’s the problem with stories and data. Balancing the clean and packaged with the messy and inconvenient. To tell data stories properly you should be prepared to take people on a journey whose end is undecided, whose conclusions are tentative at best. Give your audience a chance to find their own meanings and be sensitive for differing interpretations.

It’s 2017 and vampires, werewolves and witches are no longer that scary. Been there, done that.

Here are some things that should really frighten the bejeezus out of us this year.

Scary Insect

This from news that insect abundance has fallen by 75% over the last 27 years.

Scary Icecap

Whether its icecaps, or sea-ice or huge shelves of ice ripping free from Antarctica, it’s all a depressing picture.

 

Scary Super Bug

Scary Antibiotic

The top two pictures are related – improper use of antibiotics over the past few decades has created new bugs that are resistant to almost all known bacterial killers. At the same time, new antibiotics have failed to keep pace. The world is finally waking up to this huge crisis.

Scary Flu

One hundred years ago, a flu pandemic killed between 50 million and 100 million people in a period of months. Smaller pandemics have happened since, but it is a matter of time before a virus of similar lethality makes it’s comeback.

Scary AntiVax

And it’s not only a damaging flu that could make its presence felt. Old diseases like measles and whooping cough are coming back too, due to different pressure groups who believe, despite decades of medical evidence, that vaccines don’t work and are harmful. Some kids depend on the rest of us to be vaccinated in order to be protected against these diseases.

Scary Acidification

Kind of a hard one to draw, but there is increasing evidence that our oceans are becoming more acidic. This is having detrimental impacts on shellfish and other ocean organisms, which then propagates up the food chain.

Scary Nuclear

We thought that common sense had finally prevailed against the use of nuclear weapons as an option in international politics. We thought wrong.

Scary Paranoid

The rise (and seeming acceptance) of extremist hate groups is particularly worrying, given that the world has been there before and the consequences were so disastrous. Both media and politicians have been stoking up this hatred for quite a while.

Scary Brexit Black Hole

For us on this side of the pond, we’re still waiting to understand how Britain will prosper from a withdrawal from the EU – particularly if, as expected, there is no deal. Pro-Leavers are great on rhetoric, but thin on the details of how Britain is expected to thrive economically when leaving a successful partnership that gave us 70 years of peace in Europe. The only thing we have seen so far is an increase in xenophobia and companies deciding to move out.

Scary Politician

And finally, the biggest ongoing threat to all our lives and livelihoods – the ongoing destruction of democracy and democratic values by politicians on the make.

Now these, to me, are scary as hell.

My daughter and I went to Alt-J in Trinity College yesterday. We got there early and managed to get right up to the barrier. An hour and a half of sheer bliss.

I think we have a convert!

Attached is a gallery of images from the concert last night.

I think about death a lot. My death. It’s probably an age thing. I’ve noticed people my age getting ill, dying. I realise that I’m nearing the age when my father became ill. It’s no longer something I can avoid, nor stay oblivious to. One day, I will cease to be. 

It’s such a difficult thing, to consider one’s nonexistence. To me, life is a constant flow, interrupted by sleep and the rare hospital operation, but these are just instantaneous leaps, rather than gaps. It’s always it’s one thing after the next. I can’t imagine the flow ending, but some day it has to. One moment awake, the next, gone.

I think sometimes about sudden death. Being hit by a train, a gunshot or a bolt from the sky. An abrupt transition, where death visits perhaps without you even knowing it. No struggle, no fight, just permanent closure. How strange that seems to me.

I think about slow death, the brain losing its faculties bit by bit, consciousness falling apart. Heart still beating, eyes open, but nothing happening inside. Night announcing itself early. How strange that is too.

I think about living forever. The thought scared me so much when I was little. It frightens me less, now because I don’t think it’s possible. Even if you could live forever, you would eventually crave death. Coming to an end is less scary than continuing on and on, past all things and people familiar to you, past the extinction of our species, past the swallowing of the Earth by the Sun, past the heat death of the Universe. And yet on forever from there, as if all that time was nothing? Sooner or later it would all be too much. Death simply makes sense compared to the alternative. 

I think about how mundane death is. How it’s there every day. On our roadsides, in the trees, beneath the waves – the constant background shuffle of somethingness into nothingness. Such a natural part of existence.

The meaning of everything I have and will encounter. The experiences I have, the people I know, the places I have been to, the joys and the devastations. How it all will mean nothing someday. I think about that a lot.

I love my life. I do not want it to end for a long time yet. Being alive is such a wonderful thing. Having death as a backdrop, the ordinary becomes precious, the casual contacts important, the friendships priceless. One day I will die, but I’m not sure I would have it any other way.

New advances in Artificial Stupidity (AS) are going to change life forever, announced the World Technology Forum (WTF) yesterday. “In the last half century, we have witnessed computers take over all aspects of life, to the point that we can now make monumentally stupid machines”, declared Paul Brokering of the University of Seattle and Chair of the WTF. “Profound idiocy, unimaginable ten years ago, is now available at our fingertips”.

Using techniques such as Derp Learning and Peurile Nets, we can all now gain access to the kind of insights once reserved for an elite class of moron. Many of the developments are in the trial stage, but here’s a sampler of what’s ahead of us.

  • A device that likes all sorts of bullshit stories on Facebook, based purely on half-formed notions it already agrees with. Extra points where the news source website is called “ezclicksfrcash.ru” or “instantsexmoneylove.tv”. This device will even add a helpful comment like “They shud b strung up” where a stock photo from 2010 is used showing a happy couple who allegedly went on to spit in their kids’ ice creams or something equally appalling and imaginary. 
  • An activist device that rejects all scientific findings when they go against their instinctive prejudices about the way the world should work. “These devices reject all vaccines and antibiotics, in fact to them, all medicine is one big conspiracy and doctors know far less than they do compared to their Google based research over the last 3 weeks” announced Kim Dian and Gunther Parmeister of the University of Uppsala. 
  • A device that observes everything in the world as if it was 6,000 years old. “Version 2 of this device is already making theme parks and setting up TV stations”, says Anton Leclerc, chief scientist with the Machine Ignorance group in the Sorbonne.
  • A device that can make incredibly sweeping generalisations from a small data set. “It’s truly amazing in its stupidity.” says Vincent Okbanda of Rome University, “If it sees snow, it will declare that climate change is a hoax. If it hears about a broken solar panel, it will declare coal to be non-polluting. If it hears of a 90 year old granny who smoked 40 cigarettes a day, it will declare tobacco to be healthy. The lack of thinking involved has surprised us all”.
  • A device that declares everybody it disagrees with to be part of a conspiracy. “In studies, these devices have also discovered flat earth chemtrails from the Planet Nibiru, powered by Bigfoot” – that’s an impressively powerful amount of bullshit from such a small device”, says Ian Proctor of the Institute of Virtual Neuroscience in MIT.
  • An iPresident of the United States. Attempts to make a device this resistant to logic and common sense are still a long way off, as the solution being offered up by nature appears vastly more stupid than anything they have been able to create in the laboratory thus far.

How such technologies will change the world is the subject of intense debate among scientists, but rough estimates suggest that hundreds of billions of Internet days could be saved immediately. “Think of it this way”, says Brokering. “Instead of people spending hours expressing profound ignorance on multiple topics, they could simply wake up, press a button on their device, and go back to bed again. We could then all be spared their wisdom. Now how could this be seen as a bad thing?”

 

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Alt-J (Photo: gyduxa / Flickr / CC Licensed)

My initial experience of Alt-J nearly drove me mad. I happened upon “Hunger of the Pine” in September 2015; downloaded it, and it kept me awake for nights afterwards. This haunting tune locked itself into a dark recess in my brain, resilient to all my attempts to dislodge it. A sleepless embrace indeed. It was such a powerful melody I had to skip over the tune on my playlists for a while, just to increase my chances of getting some proper night rest.

But it found its way back and the more I listened to it, the more I fell in love with it. It’s like a classical tune, changing and developing at the song goes on. I was intrigued – what else had this band produced? I listened to the full album “All This Is Yours” and I was immediately hooked. Then quickly “An Awesome Wave“, then, then – no! That’s all they had. This band only released their first album in 2012. There is a maturity to their music that would imply they had been around forever,

The songs are sublime. Tesselate, Breezeblocks, Left Hand Free, Something Good, Taro and Every Other Freckle are some of the best songs in my library. I never get tired of them. The musicality, the complexity, the dreamlike nature of many of the tunes – it’s mesmerising. I’ve become a fan.

So, 2017 is wonderful on two fronts for me. Firstly, they are coming to Dublin in July and secondly, they have just released their third album “Relaxer“. I downloaded it with some trepidation – what if it wasn’t as good as the previous two? I shouldn’t have worried. It’s brilliant.

There is not a duff song on the album. Echoes of Pink Floyd and The Clash on some songs perhaps, but the music is very much their own. I particularly love Deadcrush, Adeline and In Cold Blood.

And soon they will be in Dublin! They are playing in Trinity College on July 11. I cannot wait. I might even buy the tee-shirt.

We shouldn’t be alone. 

It should have been the case, that when astronomers first pointed their listening devices into the stars, they would have heard sounds, blips, buzzes and screams from all corners of the universe. An unintelligible cacophony, akin to leaving a tape recorder in a rainforest. A universe alive with civilisations, some much older than us, more wise, more knowledgeable. 

Instead, we heard nothing. We continue to hear nothing. 

The signals we receive are repetitive, inorganic, mechanical. Products of immense forces, for sure, but not intelligent. No rainforest. More an arctic wasteland, stretching to infinity.

This, I think, is strange. Nobody doubts that intelligent life, capable of communicating across the galaxy, is a rarity. It took billions of years to emerge on our planet, but there are multiple trillions – quintillions – of stars out there, many with their own multi-billion year stories. These numbers overwhelm the improbability of our existence. Yet all we hear is silence.

Maybe we are listening to the wrong frequencies. Maybe our devices are not sensitive enough, or fast enough. Maybe they are using physical phenomena well beyond the reach of our technologies. Maybe advanced civilisations have no need for broadcast signals. Maybe civilisation is too short lived to get its sounds out there. Maybe you learn Maxwell’s Equations, then you learn to split the atom, then you die. 

Or maybe we are just this one time cosmic fluke. A brief flash of awareness, before the cosmic dark once again envelopes the universe. A fortuitous event in one planet, at one time, never to be repeated.

In the absence of knowing for sure, we become immensely significant. We are nothing in this vast amphitheatre of stars, yet what we know, what we represent, is precious beyond all imagination.

63 million Americans voted for him. 63 million people deciding that a racist, TV addicted sex pest should rule their country. A man with autocratic instincts to his very core. A man who fawns over dictators, seeks enrichment, cares little for the media or the courts and sees his family as next in line.

The only problem: he’s an incompetent ass. All bluster and show. He possesses neither the wit nor the guile to take on the mantle of sole ruler and saviour of a fractured nation. To him, the presidency is a part-time job; a distraction from his golf outings. No governing on weekends thank you very much. 100 days in, and still no sign that he has what it takes to run the White House, let alone the wider nation.

But, 63 million Americans voted for him. If not for the man, what he represented. They were looking for someone who could change the country to the way they wanted it to be. Full of cruelty and horror, but who cares when you are on the winning side? This ideal appears undiminished. If anything, it has been given legitimacy and a strong voice in recent times.

Out there, standing in the wings, another person may be waiting. Biding his time, learning from the missteps of his predecessor. A more intelligent person, more manipulative, more strategic. The Caesar to Trump’s Sulla.

And at the right time, when he gets his chance, he will start his campaign, using the same ticket that Trump used. The same exploitation of fear and nurturing of hatred. He will come to power some day and soon afterwards, American democracy will finally end. 

This is my worry.

And yet, it moves.

Galileo is alleged to have said this as he was being lead away from the Vatican Inquisition, to be subjected to house arrest for claiming that the Earth and all the planets moved around the Sun. The Earth was moving, not fixed and immobile like the authorities wanted to believe.

400 years later, we are here again. This time with a Presidency that does not believe in global warming. For all their insults and their rhetoric, for all their attacks on science and scientists, for all their clever economic arguments and their power plays, it doesn’t change a goddamn thing. The Earth is warming, and it’s us humans who have caused it. We broke it, and if it’s fixable, it’s us who must fix it.

The US government can deny all this. It’s their prerogative. They can lie, cheat and denigrate. They can censure, silence and control the message. They can burn the books and hide the evidence. They can do all these things, and more. And worse.

And yet, it warms.

Eppure diventa più caldo.

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