On a Jet Plane

Well, I’m flying off to Miami in a few hours for a vision research conference, so I won’t be posting here until Monday, unless I can get network access over there and feel sufficiently bored. See you all later.


In a break from just writing game reports here, I thought I’d share a discovery I made today. I work at the Department of Physiology here in Oxford, and very recently they just finished construction on a new adjoining building which is all very high tech looking with lots of dark glass and shiny steel. Today, I had to go over there to give a presentation about my project in one of the seminar rooms.

On entering, I saw not one, not two, but three 60″ flat plasma screen TVs on the wall, a mere few metres apart from each other. They were huge, fully wired up with computer monitor inputs and DVD players behind the scenes, and as far as I know, completely unused for 95% of the time. As I plugged in my iBook, my mind went into cataplexy over the possibilities they could be used for… multiple DVD watching, sports, web streaming, video conferencing, 8 player X-Box gaming… it was just far too overwhelming.

(Oh, and the presentation went pretty well)

Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid

Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College, has written a piece in the New York Times yesterday called Some Things Are Better Left on Mars, where she argues that the risk of infection by Martian lifeforms far outweighs any scientific gain from bringing back rock and soil samples. Given that we know organisms on Earth can survive in extremely harsh conditions, and the terrible lessons we’ve learnt from history of the first encounter between human populations without resistance to novel pathogens (e.g. the Americas and influenza), why should we risk it?

I’ll tell you why: her two main reasons are totally worthless. Firstly, organisms adapt to survive within a narrow range of conditions; while humans can live almost anywhere on the surface of the planet, we cannot live underwater, nor can we live underground at high pressures or temperatures above 50C or below -50C (and this is a generous estimate). We can’t live in an atmosphere that doesn’t have a particular pressure of oxygen, and there are plenty of chemicals that would be harmful or even fatal to us. Similarly, there are organisms that can live above 50C, or at high pressures or in different atmospheric mixes – but those organisms would drop dead, or at the very least become totally inert in any environment other than that which they are adapted to.

Mars has an atmosphere that is 100 times thinner than ours, mostly carbon dioxide, with a completely different chemical environment, much less water and much colder and dimmer. The planet is exposed to different radiation, different winds and different weather cycles. There is no environment on Mars, even underground, that remotely resembles Earth or more importantly, the human body. There may well be extant life on Mars in the form of extremely hardy micro-organisms adapted for low temperatures, low pressures, carbon dioxide atmosphere and low nutrients. They probably have a very slow metabolism due to a lack of energy inputs. If you put any of those organisms in the mostly water, 37C environment, high pressure and alien chemical environment of a human body, they would die.

And this ties into the argument that we should be afraid of novel organisms because of the influenza plague. Sure, we’d have every reason to be wary if there happened to be humans (or even remotely mammal-like organisms) on Mars, since they’d have provided an environment for pathogens to evolve that’s similar to our bodies. But there aren’t.

Even supposing that we did bring back harmful micro-organisms from Mars, the safety measures proposed for any sample return mission are nothing short of gargantuan. The samples would be returned to the highest class of biohazard facility, at or above the level required for highly infectious lethal human pathogens such as ebola; namely, sterilised, pressurised, air-tight facilities with multiple layers of redundancy and safety. There would certainly be a purpose-built facility for any sample return missions. I’ve also heard proposed for sterilising the returning spacecraft with a rocket exhaust while in orbit.

I find it totally puzzling why the New York Times would run such a badly-informed article as this, and I’m also confused as to why Judson would wish to make herself into a fool by writing it. Perhaps she does have a good reason for opposing a Mars sample return mission; unfortunately for all of us, it isn’t in her article.

Power Play

We had a rather astounding game of The Settlers of Catan tonight. The board setup was basically conventional except for the desert being the centre tile, which I feel stunted the growth of the game quite a bit and also served as a natural barrier. Andrew and I took up positions giving us a lot of expansion room while Shakti and Kalli boxed themselves in in about a third of the board.

Relatively quickly, Andrew pulled ahead due to his productive settlement placement and the other players seemed even for a while. Kalli was stunted by the fact that one of his two ‘free’ initial settlements was on a port, reducing early game production; having five productive tiles instead of six may not seem like a big deal but growth in this game is exponential, not linear. For that reason, when Andrew built a chain of roads and then a city, he was able to command growth on the board.

I managed to expand to build one or two more settlements and a city, and Shakti and Kalli ended up maxing out with three or four settlements apiece (further expansion wasn’t possible due to their being confined by Andrew and I). At this point we all realised that Andrew, with the longest road (giving him two points) and three cities (worth six points) put him within a mere two points of reaching the ten point victory total. All he needed to do was to build another city and he would win. Given his enormous production capacity, it seemed almost inevitable that he’d win.

I decided to put on my diplomat’s hat and form an unholy alliance with Kalli and Shakti, explaining to them that if we didn’t team up, Andrew would win in short order. The only person who could stop him was me, but I didn’t have enough resources to do the job, which initially was to build two roads to deny him access to his prospective city site. Unfortunately, no sooner had we announced this that Andrew received the resources to build the road to his site; now all he had to do was to build a city.

Barring extreme measures, the game looked totally lost to me; Andrew would easily have the resources to build his city within two or three turns, especially with his trading port. The only way to stop him was to build a longer road than he had – this would require me linking up two stretches of my network with five or six roads – a pretty enormous amount. Over the next two turns, I alternately cajoled and threatened Shakti and Kalli to give my the wood and brick required for this, and in the process bankrupted myself. In what can only be described as a monumental construction effort, I won the road building war and everything seemed even again – I had 7 points, Andrew had 6 and Shakti had 5.

I was a little bemused by Shakti’s reluctance to donate resources towards the construction of ‘Adrian’s Wall’ considering that she didn’t seem to have a hope in hell of winning, with a mere 5 points on the table. This would cause problems later. Meanwhile, I had manoeuvred myself into a tricky position – I was the leader, but only by a single point. Shakti and Kalli essentially refused to trade with me any more and whenever the robber was activated (which was pretty often), he usually was despatched to one of my more productive tiles and nicked some of my resources.

It was clear that the only way I could win was by stealth, through development cards. I already had two soldiers – one more and I’d have the biggest army, bringing me up to 9 points. From there, I could easily get a final point by buying enough development cards to get a victory point or building a settlement (the length of ‘Adrian’s Wall’ meant that I had plenty of potential building sites). Thus retooled for a development card effort, I managed to get a soldier quite quickly, increasing my total to a stealth 9 points.

Of course, the other players hadn’t stopped (well, Kalli had, but there you go). Andrew was attempting to build another settlements and buy some development cards in order to regain the throne, while Shakti seemed in a world of her own, building another settlement and some development cards. When she bought her fourth card and then divided them into two piles, Andrew and I experienced the horrible realisation that she in fact had two victory points, two soldiers and five points on the table. It wouldn’t have taken her much to win – just one more victory point and upgrading a settlement to a city.

Luckily, in poker parlance I had plenty of ‘outs’ and my next development card happened to be a victory point. With the longest road, largest army, five points on the table and one victory point, I had won. Shakti had 7 points, Andrew had 6 and Kalli had 4 or 5.

The interesting thing about this game was that three people all had a very good chance, at various stages, of winning. With his superior settlement placement, Andrew dominated the early to mid game and very nearly won; the reason he didn’t was because he was visibly the frontrunner and we all understood the need to take him down. In the end game, I was the new threat but my win didn’t seem quite as imminent since my soldiers were concealed; Shakti was also close to winning for the same reasons.

I think that our next game will once again be very different – firstly, the desert will be in a different place. Secondly, we’ll all be trying extremely hard to have more expansion space. Thirdly, we now know firsthand exactly how important development cards are and will be keeping a very close eye on who’s buying what. Clearly my winning strategy will not work next time around and I think there’ll be at least a couple of people aiming to get the largest army.

Once again, this game took a little over two hours, but only because we allied to prevent an early win by Andrew; now that we understand what it takes to win the game, I think the next one will be a fair bit quicker.

Where’s the Brick?

Almost three months after I bought it, I finally got around to playing the Settlers of Catan with my friends at college this evening. I’ve written about it before and there’s a more detailed description at BoardGameGeek but in brief it’s a very playable four-player strategy building game that features a lot of trading.

The other players, Kalli, Shakti and Andrew, looked a bit askance when I hauled out the various bits and pieces of the game but to their credit they were more interested in the peculiar way in which the board was randomised and the unusual rules. After about ten minutes of explanation and setup, we were able to start and everyone got the hang of the rules quite quickly.

Unfortunately since I’ve only played it once before myself, I gave rather simplified advice on where to set up initial settlements which had knock-on effects throughout the entire game; essentially Kalli and I were bunched towards one end of the board whereas Shakti and Andrew had more space on the opposite side (which admittedly also had the useless desert tile). This meant that while Kalli and I had an edge over the others in the early and midgame due to our proximity to the important resources (wood and wheat), we ultimately were undone by our lack of expansion space for roads and additional settlements. In particular, I had to resort to buying development cards in the hope of getting more points.

In the end, Shakti won after accumulating an enormous number of resources in a few turns from very lucky rolls of the dice (and to be fair, some very inattentive opponents) and going on a road and settlement building spree, racking up four points in single turn. I came in second with 8 points, Andrew had 7 and Kalli had 5.

The whole game took a little over two hours, which is very long by the standards of Settlers – games usually only take one hour. Obviously the fact that most people were beginners slowed things down, and also we experienced a debilitating lack of the brick resource in the early game, mostly due to an unlucky placement of tiles and counters. I imagine the next game should be around 90 minutes – still quite long, because we tend to take our time on exhaustively examining every single possible trade option.

We’ll also be a lot more wary and forward-planning in the next game, which should spice things up no end. The randomised board and the fact that we’ll choose our starting positions much more carefully will totally transform the game. Everyone really enjoyed it and we’ll probably be playing again pretty soon; I hope to try Hare and Tortoise and maybe buy Carcassonne in the near future as well.

Genetic Enhancement

The Atlantic ran an anti-genetic enhancement article this month called The Case Against Perfection. Written by Michael J. Sandel, a member of the notorious President’s Council on Bioethics, the article is cogent and well-argued.

Essentially Sandel believes that embryonic or hereditary genetic enhancements would remove the ‘giftedness’ of every child – in other words, the fact that the traits of a child would no longer be left to ‘chance’ would cause a number of ethical and societal problems. These could include a deterioration in parenting, as parents might expect their children to succeed in particular areas instead of accepting their unique characters, and also the explicit creation of a new class of humans which could damage the solidarity among all humans, and more conventionally, in insurance markets (of course this could happen with genetic screening as well). The fact that this new eugenics would come without coercion does not, in his opinion, remove the potential danger to parents and children.

While reading the article, I unusually found myself agreeing with Sandel, as I’m normally a proponent of genetic enhancement. Most of the arguments I’ve heard against it are of the ‘who needs bigger muscles/taller children’ variety, which I actually agree with – I’m not sure I see the point of these things. However, I hadn’t heard the ‘giftedness’ argument before, which was initially appealing to me but has left me a little uncomfortable.

My problem with genetic enhancement supposedly removing the giftedness of children is mainly in the way that it abstracts the issue entirely. Surely we should be looking at the concrete benefits that genetic enhancement might give children, not just the fact that parents will know about them? How would improved vision and a better heart change the attitudes of parents towards their child? Sandel uses the examples of height and muscle improvement when he talks about the problems of genetic enhancement, which are understandably fraught with complications – but these shouldn’t extend to all variations of genetic enhancement.

Also, Sandel is noticeably quiet about the potential use of genetic engineering to correct diseases such as Parkinson’s. I find it difficult to believe that he would argue against genetic ‘corrections’ unless he believes that such debilitating diseases are also a part of the giftedness of a child, thus if we do use genetic engineering to correct diseases but we don’t use it to ‘enhance’ people, exactly where do we draw the line? What’s the extent that people are prepared to accept in the name of “our appreciation that life is a gift”? (his words).

I understand that my position is pretty vulnerable, given that if we allow genetic enhancements, people will use it to design taller and stronger children whether I like it or not. My only answer (and a weak one it is) would be to raise the bar on genetic enhancements extremely high and only allow those that would not predispose the child to any particular path; hence, improved eyesight and increased memory is useful for anything a person might care to do, but stronger legs clearly suggests that you are at least implicitly expected to make good use of them in some physical activity. I do agree that there are serious issues concerning genetic enhancement and that we should move very slowly with it, but I just don’t see that its removing the ‘giftedness’ of children is a strong argument against banning the whole thing.

A new leaf

I’ve finally gotten around to setting up the weblog editor in Newsnetwire on OS X, which probably means nothing to most people but means that I can post entries here a little easier than before. Hopefully that small reduction in time will be enough to break my iron-clad procrastination.

In the past few days I’ve developed a fledgling obsession in Go, the boardgame. Earlier this year I played a few games here in Oxford which were interesting enough but nothing special. On the train back to Oxford from Liverpool, however, I found myself totally bored and in no mental condition to read another chapter of Godel, Escher and Bach – so instead I fired by the iBook and ran the wonderful Go client, Goban.

It goes without saying that I was soundly beaten by the computer in every single game, but the sense of interplay and strategy and tactics I had was absolutely fascinating. When I got back I rapidly worked my way through two tutorials (one of them interactive) and armed with this knowledge, took the fight back to the computer. Predictably, I lost quite dismally but I think I was able to survive for a few turns more.

I then turned to Sensei’s Library, a wiki about Go. There’s a truly vast amount of very well written information and discussion about Go there, as well as a very nifty engine that automatically creates images of Go boards from text (which helps things no end). I spend a while this afternoon reading through some of the basic pages there and now I can reliably win or draw against the computer on a 9×9 board… the larger board sizes can wait until later.

I do have a feeling that I need to play against humans to really learn, and that I should get a mentor to show me where I’m going wrong. There’s a Go university society here in Oxford that I think I’m going to look into next term, and I might venture onto the online Go servers for some human play (if any of you readers want to have a game online, drop me an email and we can set one up).

I used to play a bit of chess when I was at primary school but I never particularly took to it. The board always seemed too cramped and I never felt like I had a sense of an overall strategy; all the pieces were in the way of each other and it was a battle for me to look more than a few moves ahead. For me, Go feels much more natural; the rules are incredibly simple and I can appraise the situation of my forces in a glance. If chess can be likened to a battle, then Go is like a war – you have isolated skirmishes, grabs for territory, implicit compromises and agreements with the enemy and a global view that’s influenced by every stone.

Even better, I find myself relating the principles of Go, like cross-cutting, hane and moyo, to real life. I know it’s quite easy to do this with chess as well, but it feels more intuitive to me with Go. Some very useful things in there…

Where’s Adrian?

A surprising number of people have been asking why I haven’t updated my site for so long. Here are the reasons: I’ve been wrapping up my current 4 month project which is researching the basis of vision in mice (using three different experimental paradigms), planning my trip to a conference in Florida, working on Project Syzygy, writing essays and dissertations and reading a vast number of good books including Perdido Street Station, China Mountain Zhang, The Confusion and lately, Godel, Escher and Bach. I’ve also been training for a 10k run that’s taking place next month here in Oxford (yesterday I managed 5 miles in 36 minutes without feeling particularly tired).

They aren’t very good reasons because it’s not really any more work (or play) than I usually do, and I’ve still found the time to do endless amounts of surfing on the Internet, going to the pub, writing to the Culture list and other such activities which could easily be substituted by, say, updating my weblog. Anyway, over the next few days I’m going to be reposting some of my longer emails to the Culture list here (reviews, that sort of thing) while I get my head together and also finish reading GEB, which is shaping up to be one of the most wonderful and beautifully written fact/fiction books I’ve ever read.