Posts from September 2003
Current mainstream explanations of evolution are all very well – the standard idea of randomness filtered by fitness – but do they explain it all? Some people have suggested that the random formation of proteins, let alone RNA or DNA or whole cells, is hyperastronomically unlikely. So is there another explanation?
Imagine strewing 1000 shirt buttons around a room. Choose two at random, and connect them with a thread. Repeat many times. Now and again, pick up individual buttons and see how many are connected. X axis number of threads, Y axis the number of buttons in the largest cluster. As the ratio of threads to buttons grows, the largest cluster grows very slowly. Maybe at 400 threads the largest links less than 100 buttons. Suddenly, the size accelerates – around the 500 thread mark, the rate rises very quickly, up to around 900 buttons, then it levels out again. The rise is very sharp, around that 0.5 ratio, and steeper the more buttons are involved. We have a phase transition, a sudden emergence of tight order.
So what? That’s far from life. What’s a minimal definition of life? One might start with what’s known as an autocatalytic set, one where a bounded set of chemicals sustains and catalyses its own reactions, maybe with exchanges of energy only with the external world. Well, a standard way of modelling chemical reactions treats chemicals as nodes, and their reactions as edges connecting them and their product(s). A model not unlike our buttons and threads. If we assume that a random chemical has some set chance of acting as a catalyst on any other reaction, and we vary the number of chemicals and the probability of any two reacting together, we do indeed see similar sharp phase transitions. Suddenly, parts of a random stew start reacting together, and large autocatalytic sets spontaneously emerge. Further, these can grow. They can even split. Even with small differences from their largely similar ‘parents’.
There is much more to this idea of emergent complexity in biology, all kinds of models with striking correspondences with the way life seems to work. They offer a spectacularly successful model of so much that can mystify about natural selection, about how complex structures come about despite nothing in any conceivable intermediate stages offering any survival edge, about the patterns of mass extinctions and bursts of speciation that the world has seen, random boolean networks behaving strikingly like genomic structures, mathematical explanations of the numbers of cell types in different creatures, about so much more.
And that is barely a hint in one area of what complexity theory might offer. I think it’s a shift in our understanding that might compare with those introduced by Darwin or Freud or Einstein.
Much as I approve of Tim’s outrage at people insisting there is only one way to play the game, and ignoring his own (no doubt ironic) final normative statement, I have to say that I disagree with a lot of what he says.
Tim would be one of very few people in these parts who has probably watched more football well away from the highest levels than I have – I’ve been a Bristol Rovers supporter since the ’60s, and we’ve never looked remotely like pushing towards the top divisions – and I can’t agree that there’s nothing more boring than ineffective dribbles and fruitless trickery. Obviously there is nothing that gives me greater pleasure than a Gas goal, but shoving in adjectives like the ones I used there makes this no comparison with a goal for your team.
A fairer comparison would be setting that useless fannying around against seeing another aimless long ball lumped forward at your lumbering centre forward, with possession lost in the next second for the umpteenth time that game. Or comparing the thrills of seeing a long ball flicked on for the second striker to whack it in with the thrill AND aesthetic delight at seeing a beautifully worked move lead to a goal. I know which I prefer to see from both pairs of events.
This was inspired, incidentally, by watching Celtic tonight in the Champions’ League. The goal that finally put them ahead, deservedly so after a tremendous performance against Lyon, came as the culmination of a move involving 24 passes, the TV tells me, including a gorgeous flicked ball to Larsson who provided a great cross for the young Irishman Miller. I was more thrilled by that than any other Celtic goal I can ever remember seeing.
I guess my fussiness rather vanishes when it’s my team, and I’ll happily take what works, but most of what I watch is on TV, and it’s nearly all games where I am more or less neutral (excepting English teams in Europe, and the very rare Sky or cup appearance for Rovers), so effectiveness is really not a big criterion for me.
There are many kinds of stupidity in old comics. I commented on The Essential Human Torch here before, but I hadn’t reached the bit where he refers to the Sub-Mariner as “webhead”, nor where the scriptwriter forgets that only one of the villains has been revealed and has the Torch casually name the other.
Then there are the universe’s dumbest alien invaders. The Skrulls were the first aliens in the Marvel Universe, all the way back in the second comic that began to limn than created cosmos, Fantastic Four #2. This lot are shapechangers, and in this introductory story approximately four aliens imitate our heroes in a crap bid to discredit them. Their implausibly extensive ineptness soon leads to defeat, and the FF head off to the mothership, the vanguard of an unstoppable invading force. They are taken for the quartet of Skrulls, and no one asks why they are still in the forms of the FF, or why they are speaking English. Mr Fantastic, the world’s most brilliant man, claims that “Earth’s defenses can defeat us! Here are actual photos of what we would face if we invade Earth!” (Obviously that “actual” should have been a clue that he was lying, one step from “real actual photos, honest”.) Enormous monsters, space weaponry and giant ants. The Skrull leader is terrified, and decides to flee.
Now you might think that the world’s most brilliant scientist would have been able to create pretty convincing pics, even decades before the age of photoshop. But that isn’t what he has done: he has cut pictures out of old comic books! This is explicitly stated. The aliens obviously failed to notice that these pics were drawings on cheap paper, with word balloons and cut-off ads for selling seeds and building muscles on the back.*
Incidentally, the stupidity doesn’t end there: obviously the FF don’t want to leave with the Skrull spacefleet, so they nobly volunteer to return to Earth in order to remove all trace of their presence. The fact that the main traces of their presence are clearly them and their spaceship is ignored here. On their return, Reed Richards hypnotises the Skrulls into becoming cows permanently. Decades later, John Byrne revisited this, spinning a tale from the fact that some poor villagers had been drinking alien milk for ages. Oddly, no one has ever (as far as I know) addressed the fact that before the trip to the spaceship there were four Skrulls, not surprisingly, but after the return there are only ever three. What happened to the fourth one? Best theory I’ve heard: this was a carelessly cobbled together comic, as was #1, and in these earliest issues the Thing was levered in at a late stage, messing up the numbers. The lovely irony is that the insane edifice of neurotically obsessive continuity that Marvel became is founded on such slapdash nonsense.
* I like to see this climax in this story by Jack Kirby, with its monsters particularly inevitably looking like Kirby creations, as meaning that Jack Kirby saved the world – it’s postmodern metafiction! Hurrah!
On CD:UK this week electroclash was pronounced over by Cat Deeley and Duncan from Blue, which sounds fairly terminal to me. But its after-effects linger: mostly, the resurrection of (honorary) British pop, which is often more convincing when it doesn’t feel it has to be funky. Electro and pop go marvellously well together: pop songwriters like fucking around with pre-sets and funny sounds in the studio — funny sounds were what got anyone with a lick of sense into pop in the first place, after all.
‘Slow’, you’ve probably gathered, is electronic pop. Wonderful, smouldering, electronic pop. After five plays it’s my favourite Kylie single ever (yes, better than that one. And even that one). The backing is synth-classicist — Moroder, Eurythmics, Detroit, tick, tick, tick — and expensively, predictably gorgeous but what makes this record great is Kylie. Kylie seemed to acquire sex-symbol status by default or accident a few years ago, it seemed a bit forced to me, a sort of lad-mag long-service medal, but somebody clearly thought that since Kylie is sexy now Kylie ought to make records that are sexy. And she has. Stammer, shuffle, blush. Did I say five plays? I meant eight plays.
‘Slow’ is sexy because ‘Love To Love You Baby’ and ‘Justify My Love’ almost were, and the record has learned their lessons. A pop singer, a microphone, a keyboard, one steady pulse and one quickening one — these things are enough, you don’t need heavy breathing or dirty talking. It’s what ‘Slow’ leaves out that counts — a beat, a chorus. It’s the sound of pop undressing. Did I say eight plays? I meant –
The intro to this is easily the most exciting sound to hit No.1 so far ? a slamming one-note trumpet fanfare that takes you into the tune’s gimmicky sliding-horn hook. Beyond that it’s hard for me to get much of a grip on “Cherry Pink” – it’s a stomping dance number but it keeps stopping and starting, and what’s that grunting man doing there? (Answer: harshing the buzz, mostly.) The ID3 for this MP3 describes it as “House”, which isn?t totally unreasonable: I don’t think I’d truly understand “Cherry Pink” unless I was giving it some on a 1955 dancefloor.
Speaking of links…: I’ve finally updated the sidebar links. I’m sure I’m missing some important ones though – if you run a weblog that you think I would like and is partially or mostly to do with music, drop me a line. Drop me a line anyway come to think of it, and we can find a space for you on one of our other sidebars.
haha check out the NORDIC!!
See this was this fellow from rural [insert nation here], who fell in love and married. He adored his wife and everything went fine, except the way she cooked [insert regional dish here], which simply did not meet his approval: “It’s horrible,” he would shout, “it’s not like mama used to make!” She tried every variation she could think of: same result, he hated it. His mother was long passed on, so she asked her elderly relatives and made fact-finding pilgrimages to nearby villages. No joy. She made one last great effort, but the slog and the misery got the better of her: she fell asleep and the dish overcooked and burned, and an evil-smelling, disgusting mess faced her when she awoke. Exhausted, angry, at the end of her tether, she banged the plate down in front of him the moment he arrived home. He took one fork-full: “At last!! Now THAT’S like mama used to make!!”
Where does one start with Black Ball? A film vaguely based on a true story? Another addition to the long list of Mel Smith directed comedies which do not quite work? A stab at Ealingesque class warfare? A film about bowls? A satire on the commercialism of sport? The last hurrah for Bernard Cribbins? The first hurrah for Paul Kaye and Johhny Vegas? It is all of these and somewhat less too.
What is good about the film is how the lead actors grab the material and try their hardest to wring every bit of humour they can out of it. All the characters are one dimensional, some less so (Johnny Vegas exists to just be some sort of loosely undefined mate). But Paul Kaye really, really injects tremendous energy into making his rather dislikeable “bad boy of bowls” oddly charming. Possibly something he learnt from Dennis Pennis, but though he is surrounded by much more seasoned actors, he is always the most watchable thing on screen. The sports satire is toothless, but as it is hitting a barn door does raise the odd smile. But the films insistence of squeezing every sports movie cliche dry is its own dry death. There is a possibility of some funny Kingpin style irreverence, but Smith directs clunkily and gets jobs for the boys then it is not necessary.
The two most notable aspects of the film is the lousy “classics of British music” soundtrack and the swearing. Both of these elements seemed stressed to supply the film with a Britishness that its Torquay setting gives it by default. The scene where Kaye bowls down a dining table would have been pretty good if it had not been overwhelmed by an earsplitting “Won’t be Fooled Again”. And did we need quite so many wankers and tossers in the film, it is purile schoolboy swearing to get a laugh at best, and taking the piss out of the Devonian accent at worst. Kaye walks to hopefully star another day – the rest of the film just plain stinks.
The Lexmark Prize for painting was set up with some noise earlier this year. In The Guardian, at least, it was spun as an anti-Turner prize, against Serota, Saatchi and conceptual art. (If conceptual art is the unholy spirit in this trinity, then who is the Father and who the Son, by the way?) So far, so predictable.
But what’s this? In the International Art Blog, Meredith Etherington-Smith (Art Review, member of the Judging Panel for the Lexmark, 26th September entry) seems very pleased that the eventual winner, Christopher Ward, is already on show at the Saatchi Gallery. Chas bought some of Ward’s work from his degree show, apparently. Curse him, and his nasty distortion of the art market! Oh, hold on’
I’m sick of hearing how(el)ls from the pro-painting lobby, Stuckists and Ministers of State in coalition, lined up on the side of the Campaign for Real Art. I’m sick of them because they’re engaged in a campaign of suppression. They claim that conceptual art has some kind of stranglehold on the UK art world but if you go to the galleries where art is seen or bought and sold, even if you have a look around the Saatchi, painting is better-represented than any other form. The Campaign for Real Art want more, though, they want galleries and museums devoted exclusively to their hopelessly restrictive idea of what art can be.
For myself, though I liked some of the entries (especially Fleur Patrick’s), I don’t much like Ward’s work. It seems to me part of the current fashion for irritatingly psychedelic doodling (cf: Tal R) which reminds me of nothing more than the art of certain schoolmates of mine who were very fond of fungal stimulation. Give me a cold, intellectualised installation any day. I’ll be far more likely to respond emotionally.
The history books record it as the first ‘country record’ to top the British charts, but even Shania in full-on sitars-and-bongos mode would blush at claiming this one for Nashville. Tennessee’s chucklesome hick baritone is the only remotely downhome signifier here; everything else is slathering strings and dewy-eyed sentiment which could have been happily placed with Frankie Laine or David Whitfield. Maybe the plodding march-time rhythm is meant to be countrified, too – it makes for a dreary listen whatever.