Photos from the National Botanic Gardens of Wales


I’ve finally fin­ished pro­cessing my pho­tos from my trip out at the week­end. It’s the time of year when the vegat­able gar­dens have more action than the flowerbeds.

The full set is on Flickr at http://​www​.flickr​.com/​p​h​o​t​o​s​/​a​l​u​n​/​s​e​t​s​/​7​2​1​5​7​6​3​1​7​1​9​9​1​4​6​0​3​/​w​i​t​h​/​8​0​7​9​5​9​7​4​32/


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Security Two-Step


I’ve finally got round to set­ting up two-step veri­fic­a­tion for my Google account. I should have done it sooner after read­ing this account of hack­ing http://​www​.emptyage​.com/​p​o​s​t​/​2​8​6​7​9​8​7​5​5​9​5​/​y​e​s​-​i​-​w​a​s​-​h​a​c​k​e​d​-​h​ard but it’s taken a while because it can be a pain.

The way it works is by com­bin­ing a pass­word with a veri­fic­a­tion code sent by a text mes­sage to con­firm any major changes to your account. By itself it’s just the slight extra hassle of keep­ing your phone with you when you make changes, like adding access for a new program.

In real­ity you can’t use veri­fic­a­tion codes with a lot of pro­grams, so you also need to gen­er­ate a lot of one-shot pass­words for each applic­a­tion. My mail pro­grams on my phone and my desktop both use dif­fer­ent pass­words to my account pass­word. If I give any­thing else access like laptop or tab­let, that will need a new one-shot pass­word too. If I try to get this pass­word for my laptop while using my laptop browser for the first time, then that will need text veri­fic­a­tion to get into my account.

It is a hassle.

It’s even more hassle because I’m for­get­ful. There’s a good chance I could for­get where my phone is. Or it could break or get stolen. So I also have to get some more access codes to take account for that, print them off and store them some­where. Not any­where near a device, in case they’re stolen with the device, but access­ible enough that I can get them when I need them.

It is a pain, but even if you keep your pass­word secure you can’t be sure every­one else will keep your pass­word secure. http://​www​.wired​.com/​g​a​d​g​e​t​l​a​b​/​2​0​1​2​/​0​8​/​a​p​p​l​e​-​a​m​a​z​o​n​-​m​a​t​-​h​o​n​a​n​-​h​a​c​k​i​ng/ If you can get into your own account with no effort, how much effort is it going to take any­one else? You can decide for your­self if two-step veri­fic­a­tion is neces­sary for you by work­ing out how much you might lose if your Google account were hacked.


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Tentacles of Doom


Venus Fly Traps aren’t the only plants with fast moves when it comes to catch­ing prey. German sci­ent­ists have dis­covered a Sundew with tentacles that cata­pult insects into its hungry leaves. You can read the paper free, or down­load more video at http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​3​7​1​/​j​o​u​r​n​a​l​.​p​o​n​e​.​0​0​4​5​735


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I’m glad I don’t have to do a poster for a conference any time soon


I’m glad I don’t have to do a poster for a con­fer­ence any time soon

Better Posters is a help­ful site for poster design, but every so often I’ll see some­thing that makes me glad I’m not com­pet­ing for atten­tion in a con­fer­ence poster ses­sion. In this case there’s a poster with aug­men­ted real­ity. At the moment I think it’s more gim­mick than must-have, but it’s cer­tainly some­thing that’s worth keep­ing an eye on.

One of the factors that does bother me slightly is the expense. In my case when I had a poster I wanted to tour I was look­ing at the prob­lem of anim­a­tion. Animated sec­tions for parts of the poster would have helped. For example it could explain how I was meas­ur­ing stuff over time by allow­ing an image to have 2D + time dimen­sions instead of just 2D and a lot of text. I looked ser­i­ously at len­ticular print­ing and decided that was insanely expens­ive and not good enough.

Now, with cheap-ish sub £70 tab­lets avail­able it becomes more of a prob­lem about whether you can incor­por­ate film in a poster. It is expens­ive, but print­ing is around £50 for an aca­demic poster. Adding moun­ted video dis­plays now doubles or trebles the cost of a poster, but it’s no longer in the region of a mag­nitude more expens­ive. When you add travel and accom­mod­a­tion costs for big con­fer­ences, video dis­play is now cheap enough that it’s a sane expense, but expens­ive enough that it’s a big hit for self-funded students.

The answer isn’t to ban aug­men­ted fea­tures to posters. That makes as much sense as ban­ning laptops above a cer­tain spe­cific­a­tion because not every­one can afford them, but maybe enlightened depart­ments could be put­ting together reusable com­pon­ents for poster dis­plays for their stu­dents. This may be boards and sup­ports in some cases and, if so, cheap tab­let dis­plays that can also be re-used at suc­cess­ive conferences.


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Better Posters: An aug­men­ted real­ity poster
I’ve talked about vari­ous ways to make posters more inter­act­ive, from using QR codes to show­ing video. This is another step in mak­ing posters more dynamic: using aug­men­ted real­ity. Jump to the 4 minut…

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Visiting Stonehenge and Purchasing Spirituality


I’ve remembered it’s com­ing up to that day again. I went to Stonehenge for the sol­stice once. I’m glad I went, but I doubt I’ll go again. There were a couple of big disappointments.

One was the lack of a vis­ible English Heritage pres­ence. There were an estim­ated 20,000 people there who wanted some con­nec­tion to the past. I would have thought that was a good tar­get audi­ence for EH. At the very least there’s money to be made with the Solstice 2012 t-shirts to be sold. The offi­cial sol­stice blankets for those who for­got to bring one, sol­stice kagouls and umbrel­las for when it rains and so on. It’s also an excel­lent time to attempt guilt-tripping people into join­ing EH to sup­port access to ancient sites. They might have trouble with this last one as they’re not known for sup­port­ing access to Stonehenge on the sol­stice, but it’d be worth a try. The impres­sion I got (rightly or wrongly) was that EH had aban­doned the site for the night.

Drunk man standing on a stone at Stonehenge acting like an arse.

A rev­el­ler wel­comes the arrival of lager and, pos­sibly, the Sun.

The other was the sheer mess around the site. Everyone got a bag as they went in for their rub­bish. It doesn’t have to look like this. After all the fight­ing over access in the 1980s and 90s, is this a place people come are they here to cel­eb­rate or to conquer?

On the plus side I got a les­son in the dif­fer­ence between mod­ern Pagans and New Agers. The Pagans ten­ded to look dig­ni­fied and patient. Quite a few had their cere­mo­nial robes on, but not all. The easi­est ones to spot were those who’d let their beards down for the night.

In con­trast the New Agers were laden with mys­tical kit, and were often very purple. They’d looked agit­ated and annoyed. Every time someone elbowed in the ribs, she’d be wear­ing a pointy hat as if to com­pensate for the clothes she was wear­ing would ideally be on someone taller. There’d also be a purple scarf and purple jumper hid­den beneath at least half a dozen medal­lions. I should have heard them com­ing with the vari­ous eso­teric bangles and brace­lets they were wear­ing.
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Collaborating with Aliens

UFO behind Delphi

The Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi. Nothing to see here.

I’ve been kick­ing around an idea for a paper for a couple of years. Every so often Stephen Hawking will announce that con­tact with an extra-terrestrial civil­isa­tion would be a Very Bad Thing. Therefore silence, or as close to it as pos­sible is a good idea. It’s not just Stephen Hawking, many other people agree. Hawking makes the point that con­tact from Europe to other regions hasn’t gone well for the nat­ives since 1492. I think this is a bet­ter argu­ment than “Aliens are scary”, but I think he’s using the wrong ana­logy. There is room for a paper that takes another view. There’s a couple of reas­ons I haven’t pushed on with it.

The main reason is that I’ve not been clear about where the paper could be pub­lished. Ok, Hawking hasn’t pub­lished his belief as a paper either, but he’s a fam­ous phys­i­cist. Famous phys­i­cists are pre­sumed not only to be experts on Physics, but all sci­ences, pseudos­ciences, etc. I can’t claim this expert­ise. If I’m going to say any­thing mean­ing­ful I should at least have it scru­tin­ised. This is the second prob­lem. It would be weird if my pos­i­tion were unequi­voc­ally cor­rect, par­tic­u­larly as we have no data at all on extra-terrestrial con­tact — unless you con­sider the Mars nano-bacteria that were announced and then dis­missed as a trial run. I could rely on review­ers to pick up obvi­ous errors or blind spots, but there’s surely a bet­ter way to fix prob­lems before sub­mit­ting to a journal with some collaboration.

I am part of a group of people who were apply­ing to have a blog hos­ted some­where. I think that’s very likely to not hap­pen. I’ve been quiet here, partly because of a broken arm and partly with a pile up of work that I need to sort through because it’s been delayed by my arm. It’s a shame because the site has a big audi­ence, but maybe not too big a shame as this site has a qual­ity audi­ence. What I’m inter­ested in now is if a col­lab­or­at­ive or even massively col­lab­or­at­ive paper could be writ­ten and how could it work.

Before even dis­cuss­ing tools there’s an issue over dir­ec­tion. As I said at the start, I think Stephen Hawking is wrong. You might think he’s right. He may even be right even if the method he got there was wrong. One of the inspir­a­tions for this approach is Timothy Gowers’ col­lab­or­at­ive approach to solv­ing math­em­at­ical prob­lems. He pulled together a group of people to tackle a prob­lem for a couple of years that he alone could not solve. The prob­lem was solved in seven weeks by a method that came as a sur­prise to him. I can see how that can demon­strably work. In the case of this paper, the sample is zero, and the res­ult is (expec­ted to be) a counter-opinion. Without a real­ity check is it pos­sible to write such a paper with open collaboration?

Alan Cann has used another method. He put up a paper for open peer review. I think it was a clever idea and I could do the same. My worry here is that some of the ana­lo­gies will be out­side my period and I think there could be very good and insight­ful com­ments from people who say, “No, you’ve got this wrong. You should be look­ing at…” In my opin­ion this makes the paper bet­ter and it’s worth author credit. If you give the per­son credit then to an extent you tor­pedo the claim that the paper is pre-reviewed because to some extent it’s self-reviewed.

I’m try­ing to think of a work­able solu­tion, and you’re wel­come to tell me I’m wrong about this too.

I think I should put up the first draft of the paper, prob­ably on Google Docs. I prefer DokuWiki, but leav­ing it open for com­ments and edit­ing could leave it wrecked. For the people who leave sub­stan­tial com­ments which can be pos­it­ive or neg­at­ive, but also indic­ate a dir­ec­tion to go for­ward with the paper, I offer co-authorship. I close the paper from pub­lic view and we write and re-write until it’s ready to go to a journal that’s either OA or happy to have an arXiv pre-print up. The gamble here is that enough people will see the call to review the first draft that it gen­er­ates a sens­ible amount of feed­back to improve it.

Ideally, I’d like to have a sys­tem that can re-used so that I can use it for gen­eral his­tory or archae­ology papers as well as odd ones like this. The reason for choos­ing this topic as the test sub­ject is that it’s doesn’t mat­ter that much to me if it gets massively delayed and it will very neatly high­light some areas where I am emphat­ic­ally not an expert and that col­lab­or­a­tion could be useful.

If your Stonehenge theory is nonsense, is mine rational because it’s not yours?

Revellers at the solstice in Stonehenge

Sound at Stonehenge

I’m cur­rently work­ing with a group of blog­gers on a site to be launched some­where in the next few months. I’m not sure where yet. One of the fea­tures of the site is an informal rule that we won’t com­ment on news till at least seven days have passed from mak­ing the head­lines. There’s a couple of reas­ons for this.

We’re all busy. Chasing the news is work and takes time. If we get stopped before we can fin­ish it could be a while before we pick up the story again. In the mean­time hot news has become old cold news and the key points have already been said a dozen times by every­one else. The post gets spiked and the time is wasted. Intentionally plan­ning for a longer cycle changes how you approach a story and gives you not just the story to ana­lyse but also the reac­tion too. In the case of the Stonehenge acous­tics story the reac­tion is more inter­est­ing than the base story itself.

As a reminder Stephen Waller presen­ted a talk at a meet­ing of American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver. In it he pro­posed that the design of Stonehenge was related to aud­it­ory inter­fer­ence pat­terns between the sound of two flutes being played. Andy Burnham points out the obvi­ous prob­lem in his com­ment.

Waller rigged two flutes to an air pump so they played the same note con­tinu­ously” OK, fine, so how on earth is this rel­ev­ant to the prac­tic­al­it­ies of an ancient soci­ety? In order to get strong, static can­cel­la­tions in the sound you would need equal and unvary­ing sound pres­sure levels from each instru­ment, and for the sources to be from the same two points in space. How pre­cisely would two flute play­ers do this in prac­tice without an air pump? ie hav­ing to take breaths and carry on this trick for any length of time. This is utter nonsense.

Andy Burnham is pretty much gold in this thread. In reac­tion to the idea this sound could be achieved by cir­cu­lar breath­ing, he also adds:

I don’t thin cir­cu­lar breath­ing is the answer — it’s pretty dif­fi­cult on low res­ist­ance wind instru­ments such as the flute. Didgeridoos and such­like won’t exhibit this effect — you need a high fre­quency pure tone — as close to a sine wave as pos­sible — ie a flute. Bagpipes wouldn’t work either, unless someone inven­ted some sort of ‘flute bag­pipes’. A reedy bag­pipe sound is rich in har­mon­ics. The har­monic fre­quen­cies from the two instru­ments won’t cre­ate stand­ing wave can­cel­la­tions in the same places in space as the fun­da­mental tones, so you won’t get same strong can­cel­la­tion effect. And as I said you also need two fixed amp­litudes and closely fixed point sources for the effect to work.

Sound is a dif­fi­cult sub­ject for archae­olo­gists. Flutes or pipes seem likely, as to drums, but the closest pre­his­toric musical instru­ments, that I know archae­olo­gists have found, are lurs from Denmark. These date to around the 8th cen­tury BC and sur­vived because they were bronze, not organic mater­ial like wood or bone. You can see them in the logo for Lurpak but­ter. It’s been a while since I’ve read about this, so I’d be sur­prised if there weren’t now some­thing older known. There are a couple of can­did­ates for bone flutes that are older, this is the most prom­ising arte­fact, but I don’t know how widely accep­ted they are yet.

Even though there’s scant evid­ence for music in the Neolithic and Bronze Age British Isles, it’s an odd leap to say it didn’t exist. Music in some form seems to be a con­stant in human soci­ety, so this is where a min­im­al­ist approach breaks down. But it’s not just musical instru­ments that are miss­ing. I sus­pect a lot of Stonehenge is miss­ing too.
Bits of it have broken off and it’s easy to spot where stones were miss­ing but refilling these gaps, as many recon­struc­tions do, doesn’t go far enough for me. The stones are the skel­eton of Stonehenge. We don’t know if they were the whole body. We do know that the skel­eton was a lot of work. The hard sar­sen stones are craf­ted like wood, with tenon and mor­tice joints. Archaeologists cur­rently believe that the blue­stones were trans­por­ted from far Wales. In light of this what else would have been at a liv­ing Stonehenge?

If you visit places of wor­ship in mod­ern times, there’s a bit more than stone. There’s wooden seats, often dec­or­ated rather than plain. The walls are painted, win­dows often dec­or­ated. It’s not unusual to find holy books n plush vel­vet cush­ions and tex­tiles dyed in strik­ing col­ours draw­ing the eye here and there. We also know tex­tiles were used in Neolithic and Bronze Age times. So after the thou­sands of man-hours shap­ing the stones, how likely is it that Gareth turned to Shane and said: “That’s that done. No point in wast­ing time dec­or­at­ing it with tartans or drapes. That’ll just be tedi­ous and gaudy.”?

Once you add tex­tiles into Stonehenge the acous­tic and visual prop­er­ties change. There are many argu­ments that “If you look out of this gap you can see this star,” but you can’t if Blodwyn’s nifty eth­nic rug is in the way. As sci­ent­ists archae­olo­gists need a min­im­al­ist model of Stonehenge as a found­a­tion to build on, but this min­im­al­ist model is an unfin­ished work. It’s a tool to build an idea of what Stonehenge looked like on. If you’re going to say that it’s the fin­ished model and we don’t need tex­tiles, then all recon­struc­tions should show any­one there naked because there’s no evid­ence for the clothes people wore there either.

As Andy Burnham poin­ted out, Steven Waller’s approach misses the prac­tical use of Stonehenge by ancient peoples, and in this case adding people into the past makes Waller’s pro­posal either unwork­able or an aston­ish­ing Jenga tower of spe­cial plead­ing. It’s safe to say I’m uncon­vinced, but I’ve not been too impressed with some of the reac­tions to the story either. “Crank’ seemed a com­mon opin­ion, If Steven Waller were a crank then by present­ing his work at a sci­entific con­fer­ence he’s still closer to pro­fes­sional prac­tice than archae­olo­gists who issue a press release now before a talk in a few months time.

In fact a browse of his web­site shows he’s not likely to be a crank, just ter­ribly unaware of the dif­fer­ences in approach between US and UK prehistory.

The bulk of his work is on rock art at American pet­ro­glyph sites. The acous­tics of rock art in the US is a new field, but pro­du­cing some inter­est­ing res­ults. Some archae­olo­gists are find­ing archae­oacous­tics much more intriguing than, to pick a ran­dom example, archae­oastro­nomy. But American pre­his­tory is dif­fer­ent to British pre­his­tory. They have a richer rock art record, espe­cially in the south­w­est. They also have eth­no­graphic records and research that can help con­nect mean­ing to sym­bols. It’s not per­fect, and I’d like to debunk one inter­pret­a­tion of a site this sum­mer, but it’s very very dif­fer­ent to the lim­ited things we can say about rock art here. It means that Waller’s American work can rely on cul­tural inform­a­tion that we simply don’t have here. What is accep­ted by US archae­olo­gists about US sites is extremely spec­u­lat­ive when applied to UK sites.

Very few people have com­men­ted on work around archae­oacous­tics in gen­eral in rela­tion to this story. A few com­menters have men­tioned Deveraux’s work, but mainly the thrust has been this story must be debunked. I don’t think for a moment archae­olo­gists have con­sciously decided the out­sider must be expelled, but I won­der if an eager­ness to por­tray this as non­sense indic­ates some­thing more. Subconsciously does reject­ing Waller as non­sense and the oppos­ite of what you do men­tally reaf­firm that your own the­or­ies must there­fore by default be sound reasoning?

For some­thing more pos­it­ive about how sound can be explored in archae­ology, Alan Boyle has writ­ten an inter­est­ing piece on MSNBC’s Cosmic Log.