29 July 2011

Perhaps we are alone

David Spiegel and Edwin Turner have recently posted an interesting paper entitled 'Life might be rare despite its early emergence on Earth: a Bayesian analysis of the probability of abiogenesis' on arXiv.org. According to the abstract:
Life arose on Earth sometime in the first few hundred million years after the young planet had cooled to the point that it could support water-based organisms on its surface. The early emergence of life on Earth has been taken as evidence that the probability of abiogenesis is high, if starting from young-Earth-like conditions. We revisit this argument quantitatively in a Bayesian statistical framework. By constructing a simple model of the probability of abiogenesis, we calculate a Bayesian estimate of its posterior probability, given the data that life emerged fairly early in Earth's history and that, billions of years later, sentient creatures noted this fact and considered its implications. We find that, given only this very limited empirical information, the choice of Bayesian prior for the abiogenesis probability parameter has a dominant influence on the computed posterior probability. Thus, although life began on this planet fairly soon after the Earth became habitable, this fact is consistent with an arbitrarily low intrinsic probability of abiogenesis for plausible uninformative priors, and therefore with life being arbitrarily rare in the Universe.

Their work undermines what was formerly thought to be one of the more reliable assumptions in the Drake equation, namely, that the probability of life emerging on a planet in a habitable zone is relatively high. According to Spiegel and Turner, that assumption is biased by the fact that we are here: it has taken about 3.5 (American) billion years for intelligent life to emerge on earth, and that could only have happened if life emerged quite quickly. But the point of their Bayesian analysis is to remind us that the probability of life emerging at all is independent of the fact that it emerged quickly in this instance. In other words, the fact that life emerged quickly on earth tells us nothing about the probability of life emerging in general.

28 July 2011

John Stott, 1921–2011

John Stott, one of the elder statesmen of twentieth-century evangelicalism, died yesterday at the age of ninety. According to a Time magazine article in 2005, he was one of the hundred most influential people in the world. As you might expect, the obituaries are flowing in thick and fast (e.g. The New York Times and Christianity Today). There can be few evangelicals, certainly within the English-speaking world, whose lives have not been touched in some way by him.

I only heard him speak a couple of times, and I have virtually no recollection of what he said. However, his writings have had a major impact on me. His Basic Christianity was one of the first books I read after becoming a Christian, and it helped clarify for me just what I had committed myself to. Later I was very influenced by his The Cross of Christ, and I have always enjoyed the lucidity of his contributions to The Bible Speaks Today series (particularly his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount). For me, three things about John Stott stand out: his clarity, which was the product of a first-class mind that had struggled long and hard to articulate the mystery of the gospel; his eirenic attitude towards those who disagreed with him (perhaps illustrated most clearly by his lifelong allegiance to the Church of England); and his willingness to espouse positions he believed to be biblically warranted regardless of the conventional wisdom among other evangelicals (e.g. his belief in annihilationism).

In the Time article mentioned above, Billy Graham summed up his life in the following words:
I can't think of anyone who has been more effective in introducing so many people to a biblical world view. He represents a touchstone of authentic biblical scholarship that, in my opinion, has scarcely been paralleled since the days of the 16th century European Reformers.

22 July 2011

Plus ça change . . .

You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there’s no occasion to.
      (Humbert Wolfe, 1885–1940)

Another meme: women sff authors of the 1980s

Here’s another list from James Nicoll via Ian Sales of women writers whose careers began in the 1980s. Again, italicise those you’ve heard of, bold those you’ve read at least one work by, and underline those whose work you own an example of.

Marcia J. Bennett
Mary Brown
Lois McMaster Bujold
Emma Bull
Pat Cadigan
Isobelle Carmody
Brenda W. Clough
Kara Dalkey
Pamela Dean
Susan Dexter
Carole Nelson Douglas
Debra Doyle
Claudia J. Edwards
Doris Egan
Ru Emerson
C.S. Friedman
Anne Gay
Sheila Gilluly
Carolyn Ives Gilman
Lisa Goldstein
Nicola Griffith
Karen Haber
Barbara Hambly
Dorothy Heydt (AKA Katherine Blake)
P.C. Hodgell
Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Tanya Huff
Kij Johnson
Janet Kagan
Patricia Kennealy-Morrison
Katharine Kerr
Peg Kerr
Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
Rosemary Kirstein
Ellen Kushner
Mercedes Lackey
Sharon Lee
Megan Lindholm
R.A. MacAvoy
Laurie J. Marks
Maureen McHugh
Dee Morrison Meaney
Elizabeth Moon
Paula Helm Murray
Rebecca Ore
Tamora Pierce
Alis Rasmussen (AKA Kate Elliott)
Melanie Rawn
Mickey Zucker Reichert
Jennifer Roberson
Michaela Roessner
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Melissa Scott
Eluki Bes Shahar (AKA Rosemary Edghill)
Nisi Shawl
Delia Sherman
Josepha Sherman
Sherwood Smith
Melinda Snodgrass
Midori Snyder
Sara Stamey
Caroline Stevermer
Martha Soukup
Judith Tarr
Sheri S. Tepper
Prof. Mary Turzillo
Paula Volsky
Deborah Wheeler (Deborah J. Ross)
Freda Warrington
K.D. Wentworth
Janny Wurts
Patricia Wrede

20 July 2011

The gospel in five propositions

I am currently reading Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. As usual with Volf, there is a great deal of thought-provoking material. But I was particularly struck last night by the way in which he summarizes the Christian gospel:
First, we don’t just happen to be in the world as products of chance or necessity; the God of love created each one of us, together with our world.
Second, we are not in the world just to fend for ourselves while pursuing lives filled with as little pain and as much pleasure as possible; God has created us to live with God and one another in a communion of justice and love.
Third, humanity has not been left by itself to deal with the divisive results of our deadly failures to love God and neighbor – a fissure of antagonism and suffering that taints all human history and scars individual lives; in Christ, God entered human history and through his death on the cross unalterably reconciled human beings to God and one another.
Fourth, notwithstanding all appearances, rapacious time will not swallow us into nothingness; at the end of history God, who took on our finitude in Jesus Christ, will make our fragile flesh imperishable and restore true life to the redeemed, so that forever we may enjoy God, and each other in God.
Fifth, the irreversibility of time will not chisel the wrongs we have suffered into the unchangeable reality of our past, the evildoer will not ultimately triumph over the victim, and suffering will not have the final word; God will expose the truth about wrongs, condemn each evil deed, and redeem both the repentant perpetrators and their victims, thus reconciling them to God and to each other. (pp. 43f) 

19 July 2011

In praise of Idealist

I have mentioned Idealist on this blog more than once (e.g. here, here and here). It is a simple and very flexible textual database, which uses an index card metaphor. Because each entry looks like an index card, it presents a familiar, friendly face to old-fashioned academics like me. But each entry/card can have several different independently searchable fields; those fields are variable in length (you don’t have to define their size in advance);  and you can even define new fields on the fly as and when you decide you need them. Add to that the fact that it automatically indexes the words in each field and that it possesses powerful search capabilities, and it is little wonder that I still find it more useful and usable than any of the alternatives I have experimented with over the past decade. The version I am currently using (version 3.0) is dated 1995, but it still works (at the moment, I’m running it on 32-bit Windows 7, but I have also run it successfully on Windows 3.11 for Workgroups, Windows 95, 98, 2000, NT, XP Professional and Vista, not to mention a brief experiment with Linux/Wine).

The main reason I like it so much (apart from its utter reliability over more than a decade of use) is that the card index interface fits perfectly into my workflow. My approach to research is a fairly simple-minded process of analysis followed by synthesis, and Idealist is the cornerstone of the analytical stage of the process. As I read, I capture individual ideas, quotes, etc. that seem relevant to what I am research. Each gets its own entry (with title, reference and associated notes/comments) in my Idealist Notes database and full bibliographical details go into the associated References database. The result is a vast soup of ideas (that particular database currently stands at about 25,000 entries) which I can search almost instantly.

The synthetic stage is usually a process of mind map construction during which I draw on repeated searches of Idealist. Sometimes I prepare the mind maps on paper, but more often these days (and certainly with more complex projects) I use XMind. The end result of the mind mapping is an outline that I can work up into an article or book. In the past, I have usually done this in a general purpose word processor (originally WordPerfect but more recently Word, not because I think it’s better but merely because most of my editorial clients require me to use it). However, I am currently experimenting with Scrivener for Windows for the final writing stage. And, of course, Idealist is still essential at this stage as I keep referring back to it for quotes, snippets of text and references.

18 July 2011

Meme! Women sff writers of the 1970s

This meme comes courtesy of Ian Sales, who got it from Nicholas Whyte, who got it from James Nicoll.

Italicize the authors you’d heard of before reading this list; bold the ones you’ve read at least one work by; underline the ones of whose work you own at least one example.

Lynn Abbey
Eleanor Arnason
Octavia Butler
Moyra Caldecott

Jaygee Carr
Joy Chant
Suzy McKee Charnas
C. J. Cherryh

Jo Clayton
Candas Jane Dorsey
Diane Duane
Phyllis Eisenstein

Cynthia Felice
Sheila Finch
Sally Gearhart
Mary Gentle
Dian Girard
Eileen Gunn
Monica Hughes
Diana Wynne Jones
Gwyneth Jones

Leigh Kennedy
Lee Killough
Nancy Kress
Katherine Kurtz

Tanith Lee
Megan Lindholm (AKA Robin Hobb)
Elizabeth A. Lynn

Phillipa Maddern
Ardath Mayhar
Vonda McIntyre
Patricia A. McKillip

Janet Morris
Pat Murphy
Sam Nicholson (AKA Shirley Nikolaisen)
Rachel Pollack
Marta Randall
Anne Rice
Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Pamela Sargent
Sydney J. Van Scyoc
Susan Shwartz
Nancy Springer
Lisa Tuttle
Joan Vinge

Élisabeth Vonarburg
Cherry Wilder
Connie Willis

16 July 2011

Dawn patrol begins

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft begins the first phase of its mission to investigate some of the major asteroids when it goes into orbit around Vesta today. It will spend a year studying Vesta before flying on to visit Ceres (the largest asteroid in the solar system).

15 July 2011


I’ve just had another book review published in Interzone:

Fenrir by M.D. Lachlan, Gollancz, 504pp, £18.99 hb / £12.99 trade pb

Fenrir is the eagerly awaited sequel to M.D. Lachlan’s first fantasy novel, Wolfsangel, which was published to much acclaim last year (see my review of that here).

The new novel is nothing if not action packed. It opens with an army of Vikings led by King Sigfrid besieging Paris in 885/886 ad. Chief among their demands is that Count Eudes hand over his sister, Aelis. Naturally enough she is not willing to sacrifice herself to them. Torn between love of his sister and a sense of duty to his city, Eudes has summoned the holy monk Jehan to persuade her to accede voluntarily to the Vikings’ demands. However, Jehan fears that she is to be literally the victim of a pagan sacrifice and that surrendering her to such a fate could imperil all their souls.

But the besieging Vikings are not alone in wanting Aelis. The Viking Prince Helgi of the Rus has also heard of her and has sent the wolfman Sindre to Paris to offer her his protection. He arrives just in time to protect her from a band of berserkers and a sinister shaman, Hugin, who clearly wishes to see her dead. With Sindre’s help, she escapes from the besieged city. Thus the scene is set for an epic journey across war-torn northern Europe as Aelis tries to reach the safety offered by Helgi with the berserkers and Hugin in hot pursuit.

Also drawn unwillingly into the pursuit is Jehan. Originally blind and crippled, he is unable to avoid being captured by the berserkers. While their prisoner, he is forced to eat human flesh in a mockery of the Eucharist, an incident that initiates a horrific process during which he is gradually transformed into Fenrir, the apocalyptic wolf of Norse mythology. I found Lachlan’s portrayal of Jehan and his inner struggle against what is happening to him utterly convincing. In spite of the change that is overtaking him, he never abandons his Christian faith and continues to resist the transformation to the very end of the novel.

In the course of the journey, Aelis, too, undergoes a dramatic transformation. It appears that, together with Hugin’s sister, the prophetess Munin, and Helgi’s daughter, Svava, she is one of the bearers of the twenty-four runes that constitute Viking magic. Initially this manifests itself in small ways such as her ability to control horses. However, with Munin’s death, she becomes a sorceress of considerable power. I must admit I found the ease with which she adapted to her new situation far less convincing than Jehan’s struggles.

But Aelis, Jehan and Hugin are just pawns in a larger game being played by the god Odin. In Wolfsangel, his plan to become incarnate and so provoke the apocalypse was thwarted by Loki’s meddling. Now he is trying again with these characters who it appears are (loosely) reincarnations of the dramatis personae of Wolfsangel. And Loki is once more doing whatever he can to frustrate Odin’s designs. Essentially the same drama is being played out again, but in a very different setting.

My main reservation about the novel is its unremitting darkness. Apart from a few touches of (dark) humour and one major romantic interlude, it is a tale of inexorable descent into tragedy with little sense that anything has been resolved at the end of the story. On the contrary, it merely seems to set the scene for another round of the conflict between Odin and Loki.

In spite of that, Fenrir has a lot going for it: plenty of action, strong characters and vivid description. Lachlan’s refreshing take on magic – that power is achieved through suffering – is again evident here. Since it is a sequel, the reader’s understanding of forces at work beneath the surface would be greatly enriched by previously having read Wolfsangel. However, the story is sufficiently independent of its predecessor for it be read and enjoyed on its own.

13 July 2011

Goodbye to Facebook

I have begun the process of deleting my Facebook account. Fourteen days from now it will be no more than a bad memory. I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while, but the last straw was the fact that my account was spammed this morning. Some of the other factors in my thinking include:

  • Privacy issues. FB is parasitical upon the personal information it extracts from users’ accounts for advertising purposes. In the words of security expert Bruce Schneier, ‘Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re Facebook’s customer, you’re not – you’re the product . . . Its customers are the advertisers.’
  • Copyright concerns. A couple of years ago FB quietly changed its terms of use to give it the permanent right use any content you post on FB in any way they see fit (see this entry on Richard’s Kingdom).
  • Impact on social interactions. This is less tangible but potentially more disturbing than the preceding factors. One aspect is the increasing assumption on the part of FB users that everyone else is already on FB. (For example, last year I found out from FB that an acquaintance of mine had died. A decade ago I could have expected to have received that news from a variety of sources.) I fear that for an increasing number of people FB has become so central to their social interactions that it has become a chore for them to keep in touch in any other way. Another aspect is FB’s homogenizing effect on our social interactions: instead of unique interactions with individuals it encourages to send the same message indiscriminately to our entire social circle. Recently Lisa Lebduska has suggested (here) that this has the effect of flattening out the ‘otherness’ of our friends and acquaintance so that we are, in effect, really only communicating with a mirror image of ourselves. I’m not entirely convinced by that; I think she has overstated her case. But I am aware that FB has a certain chilling effect on what I’m prepared to post because of the fact that I belong to several different social circles that don’t overlap. What would make perfect sense to one group might seem ridiculous (or even offensive) to another. In the words of Richard King, ‘Don’t post anything to Facebook that you wouldn’t be happy seeing splashed across a 40′ billboard in your home town.’