You only die twice

“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” 
-- Banksy

Alas. Iain Banks has passed away.

Since I started reading make-believe, I've invited many authors to paint pictures in my imagination. Tolkien inscribed medieval fantasies of heroes and monsters, dingy caves and gleaming swords. I've walked with Dickens around his London streets, amid a hubbub of hawkers, chancers and strivers, the poor and the privileged. I've walked the same streets with Conan Doyle, weaving chasing horse-drawn cabs through smog and smoke, in pursuit of baffling mysteries. And I've visited places I hope never to walk, through Orwell's nightmarish fairytales.

But, for me, Iain Banks was different; I'd once felt the warmth of his handshake, I'd heard his voice, I'd looked into his eyes. We had shared the same time and space - and it's funny how few authors you can say that about, these strangers who you invite into your mind, with their Trojan horses of words. The man himself was funny, witty, infectiously enthusiastic and endearingly humble; he described himself as a professional scribbler, he addressed his audience as 'chums'. And he could conjure worlds that staggered the imagination. He quickly became my favourite author.

Orwell's lasting gift to humanity was his warning of how technology can enslave us. Not a manifesto, but a vision, a nightmare that could be painted into any receptive imagination. A story with characters and emotions, morals and motivations, hopes and dreams. We seem to understand ideas better that way.

How apt that at this very moment, shadowy systems are sifting through the digital residue of our lives, like Philip K Dick's precogs, trying to pre-emptively identify threats to our society. Its advocates tell us: "If you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear". But when communications are stripped of their context and people become just another node in a graph, all you can see is guilt by association. Suspicion exceeds threshold. Computer says Yes.

Literature, particularly science-fiction, warns us of eventualities that have not yet come to pass, like a postcard from a possible future, detailing the dystopias into which we might sleepwalk. But sci-fi can also inspire.

Banks wrote 11 books featuring The Culture, a post-scarcity civilization. As its name suggests, this was a decentralised anarchy, its trillions of diverse citizens united by their shared values, language and ideals rather than leaders and government. It was a symbiotic society of God-like machine intelligences ('minds') and humanoids. Individual minds kept things running at a galactic scale, and the humanoid citizens kept things real. At first, the relationship between the two might seem like that between Masters and their Pets, but you should make your own mind up.

The Culture is the finest utopia in literature. Its creator was an idealist who believed that technology need not result in a dark, sinister dictatorship. Technology could also liberate, allowing the emergence of a rationalist anarchy, one without religion, politics and empire-building. The Culture was an inherently compassionate, libertarian society, governed by good manners and individual consciences. To read his descriptions of what humanity could become made the mind soar and the heart ache, like Caliban crying out to dream some more.

In his tribute Neil Gaiman said: "If you've never read any of his books, read one of his books. Then read another. Even the bad ones were good, and the good ones were astonishing." I agree completely, and so my own tribute to the man is to encourage you to read some of his words.

Iain Banks was best-known for two books in particular. One is his macabre d├ębut novel The Wasp Factory, ("What's The Wasp Factory about?" its author was once asked, replying: "Oh, it's about 180 pages"). Also justifiably famous is the brilliant family-with-secrets tale The Crow Road ("We continue in our children, and in our works, and in the memories of others; we continue in our dust and ash"), which was adapted for TV by the BBC. But he also wrote 27 others, and of those, here are 5 you might like to get you started...



Consider Phlebas


"Vavatch lay in space like a god's bracelet. The fourteen-million kilometre hoop glittered and sparkled, blue and gold against the jet black gulf of space beyond."

If you've never read any of Iain Banks' science fiction, start with this, his first book. Against the backdrop of a galactic war and destruction on an epic scale, we learn of a symbiotic human-machine society ('The Culture') from the viewpoint of Horza, the story's protagonist. To Horza, the Culture is an arrogant robot cabal with a God-complex, intent on galactic imperialism, and he absolutely hates it. But what difference can a mere mortal make in a war between the Gods? This is the story Homer would have written if he'd envisaged kilometre-long spaceships. 

Starship and Ringworld
I once went to a book reading where Banks was asked what Consider Phlebas was all about. With characteristic modesty he said: "It's about a sailor gets shipwrecked, falls in with a bunch of pirates, and joins a quest to steal a fantastic treasure from a haunted island guarded by a monster."

All of which explains the book's curious title, a reference to the shipwrecked sailor in T.S Eliot's poem The Wasteland.

This book is the epitome of Brian Aldiss's notion of "Widescreen Baroque", a shockingly thrilling movie in your head with an infinite budget, awesome sets and imagination-stretching special effects. The ultimate unfilmable blockbuster for the cinema between your ears. Glorious.



Use of Weapons


"The bomb lives only as it is falling."

The 2nd Culture novel, The Player of Games is superb, but the 3rd is a genuine must-read, a story as brilliantly inventive as its protagonist - a mercenary with a talent for improvising weapons who is directed by the Culture's intelligence division, (euphemistically named Special Circumstances). 

Battleship and Chair
Last summer, I was lucky enough to see Iain Banks spend a couple of hours talking about this book; as it happened, it was one of his last public appearances. There was plenty to talk about, the story is like a double helix, alternate chapters proceed forwards from the present and backwards into the past, ultimately colliding in a shattering conclusion.

During his talk Banks revealed this was the first Culture book he wrote, and grew from the author's desire to create the ultimate Empire of Good Intentions.

But those who claim the moral high-ground can find the temptation to meddle irresistible. It is a parable for our times, written decades ago; but like all great stories, it now seems eerily prescient. This classic deserves to be better known. Just brilliant.




Walking on Glass


"The Wars were not, of course, between Good and Evil at all, as non-combatants of every species always assumed, but between Banality and Interest."

The backcover synopsis doesn't begin to do justice to this outstanding book. Some guy is in love, there's another guy who's rather paranoid, and a third guy who's trapped in a castle. So what?

But trust me, from these seemingly unremarkable scenarios a brilliantly imaginative story emerges. You'll start by laughing at crazy world of the paranoid Grout, a delusional London misfit convinced he's an exiled soldier in a far-flung conflict. Then we're introduced to Quiss, and we suddenly leave the familiar surroundings of '80s London to encounter a surreal metaphysical conflict. Now Grout doesn't seem as crazy. A masterly piece of storytelling.

The Game Room by Isona Rigau Heras
But the highlight of the book is the surreal neo-gothic castle made of slate, glass and books that Quiss inhabits. It's as if Mervyn Peake had written Gormenghast after watching the film Being John Malkovich.

This is tale in the spirit of Jorge Luis Borges, the familiar clashing with the fantastic. And despite not being a sci-fi book it still induces vertigo in the imagination, like only the best fantasies can do. Walking on Glass is one of my favourite books.




Against a Dark Background


“People were always sorry. Sorry they had done what they had done, sorry they were doing what they were doing, sorry they were going to do what they were going to do; but they still did whatever it is. The sorrow never stopped them; it just made them feel better. And so the sorrow never stopped.” 

Banks wrote three sci-fi novels that didn't feature The Culture, the other two: Feersum Endjinn and The Algebraist definitely deserve to be read, but as this list is an introduction to Banks' canon, I'm going to recommend this, a back-to-basics sci-fi novel.

What sets this book apart is there is no interstellar travel, no God-like artificial intelligences, and no aliens. In their place are assassins, apocalyptic weapons, crazy gadgets and almost cartoonish ultra-violence.

This is a solar-system-wide treasure hunt through some brilliantly imagined locations. It is also terrific fun; it will make you wonder how Holywood studios can routinely spend several hundred million dollars making sci-fi movies so dull, and why they never seem to make anything anywhere near as inventive as this.




The Bridge


"There was another part of him which seemed like a hawk or an eagle; hungry and cruel and fanatically keen-eyed. Self-pity lasted a matter of seconds in the open; then the bird of prey fell on it, tearing it, ripping it. The bird was the real world, a mercenary dispatched by his embarrassed conscience, the angry voice of all the people in the world, that vast majority who were worse off than he was."


A man wakes up on a bridge the size of a city. He has amnesia, he doesn't know who he is, or where he is - and his doctor doesn't seem to be in any hurry to cure him. So he spends his days exploring his strange new surroundings, and his nights in bizarre, disturbing dreams. 

If you liked the TV series Life on Mars, you'll love this, the original 'trapped in your head' fantasy. A Kafkaesque tale of surreal happenings, fantastic adventures, love, loss, and self-discovery. This is a fantasy with a distinctly Scottish flavour, with a hat-tip to Alasdair Gray's cult dystopian novel Lanark; one character's dialogue is phonetically rendered in Scots dialect, years before Trainspotting. Banks considered it his finest work; it must be good.



A great author achieves an type of immortality few of us will ever obtain. An author's words will outlast them, propagating through new generations of readers. I hope you'll be one of them, that his stories will entertain and inspire you. And I hope it will be a long, long time indeed until the name of Iain Banks is spoken for the last time.

Or as his friend Ken MacLeod said, "He was one of our very best, a star whose light will travel a long way, and fall on places not yet built."

I wish you many happy imaginings.


The Social Network Analysis of Football Matches

  • "Football is a simple game based on the giving and taking of passes, of controlling the ball and of making yourself available to receive a pass. It is terribly simple." -- Bill Shankly
 
  • "Football is simple. But nothing is more difficult than playing simple football." -- Johan Cruyff

Did you know that several academics have used network analysis in an attempt to derive insights into the beautiful game?

During the 2010 World Cup, FIFA analysts compiled data listing every pass exchanged between players, and put it online (unfortunately it seems to have disappeared since then). This data was used by researchers at Queen Mary University of London to create a network theory explanation of how each team played. There's also a media-friendly summary of their work, and a more detailed write-up in the following paper:  

And the QMUL group aren’t the only researchers seeking to apply network analysis to football, there’s also the long-running ARSFutbol research group at the university of Buenos Aires. Some of their work looks very interesting, it's in Spanish, but Google Translate will help you read it in your own language.

I also found another paper analysing the 2010 World Cup from some Spanish researchers:

As this BBC article explains, most big clubs now have a team of data analysts, and companies like Prozone produce detailed data on every aspect of what happens on the pitch. Unfortunately clubs pay a lot of money for Prozone data, so it's unlikely to be publicly available; so if you're hoping to do some bedroom-based analysis, you might be out of luck.

Not all are convinced of the value of this type of analysis, mind you. Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas said: “I have never used Prozone. I don't use it because I don't believe in it". Whereas other managers, like Rafa Benitez, are more keen on the data-driven approach.

That network theory might be applied to football is not particularly surprising. After all, football is a passing game, and interactions between players are fundamental to a successful team. Hence when we fans watch players playing well, we frequently call them “influential”. And network theory has proven to be especially good in determining who or what is influential amongst the millions of documents now online.

By comparison with the Byzantine complexity of online content, analysing what happens on a football pitch seems child's play. The graph of a football match will only have 22 players (nodes), a handful more if you include substitutes.

However, to paraphrase Cruyff: calculating the numbers is simple, but deriving useful insights from them - that's difficult. For instance, say you notice a lot of passes are going through your centre-forward (he has high betweenness in the network jargon), is that a good thing? Was that part of your team's plan? Or should you be yelling at your centre-forward to get into the bloody box and to start causing some fecking mayhem?
 
Does network analysis have any value to our understanding of football? Will it one day be able to quantify what football professionals have come to understand intuitively - demystifying it for the rest of us? Or perhaps the spirit of football will always defy analysis, generating as many opinions as there are fans watching it. After all, what model could ever hope to explain the Miracle of Istanbul...

Run the Experiment

A few years ago I built a system to create social networks by mining online conversations. The idea was that from these networks I could determine (amongst other things) who was talking about a particular topic, and the relative influence of each speaker.

I've been interested in the science of social networks ever since, and so I've really enjoyed re-acquainting myself with the theory and practice of networks during Lada Adamic's excellent Social Network Analysis course.

Then a few weeks back, a question about the practical application of social networks appeared in my Quora feed: "How did Google's creators realise the PageRank algorithm would be a useful indicator of good search results?"

It's a good question, because it goes back to the dawn of the information age, when pioneering thinkers had begun to contemplate how to make sense of the massive amount of knowledge that would inevitably become accessible. Vannevar Bush's classic article As We May Think suggested using a citation index to find influential information. Then in the 50s, Eugene Garfield developed the idea of impact factors, using citations to empirically calculate the influence of academic papers.

But citation analysis is not trivial to calculate, especially if the documents in question don't even have an index, and are literally dispersed across the globe. So the first internet search engines simply counted keywords; it was the pragmatic thing to do.

  • One in 100 million: how do you find what you're looking for? (with metaphor by Ai Weiwei)
It turns out finding things is hard, especially when there's a lot to sift through. And so here begins the fascinating story of the PageRank algorithm - and Google - the company formed to exploit it, which is nicely told in the first few chapters of John Battelle's book, The Search.

It began with a brave, complicated, highly ambitious experiment:

"In graduate school at Stanford University, I had about ten different ideas of things I wanted to do, and one of them was to look at the link structure of the web. My advisor, Terry Winograd, picked that one out and said, 'Well, that one seems like a really good idea.' So I give him credit for that." -- Larry Page

So whilst the idea of citation analysis wasn't new, what was novel was the ambition of applying it to the whole worldwide web, which by 1996 was at least 10 million documents, and growing rapidly.

In Battelle's book Terry Winograd recollects that what he didn't say when recommending the topic to Larry Page was that he thought the task was impossible in practice. But knowing when to hold your peace, and trust your student to explore the topic without prejudice, is the hallmark of a great mentor.

And Winograd was right not to dampen Page's enthusiasm, because once you start trying to implement citation analysis on a graph as gigantic as the web you're forced to confront all sorts of challenges.

For instance: one non-trivial problem is the graph you're trying to analyse is enormous, far beyond what would fit into the memory of even the largest supercomputer. And Page and Brin were grad students without budgets at the time, they would have to make do with desktops they could beg and borrow.

But necessity is the mother of invention, and the constraints of their available computing resources became the impetus behind their solution. They would split the graph into smaller individually computable fragments. They would distribute each fragment to one of their processors, analyse it, collect the results centrally, and integrate them into an index.

As well as technical challenges, there were theoretical ones. For example, by nature citations form a directed graph, and because of the way websites are interlinked, it's easy for any analysis algorithm to get stuck in a closed loop.  Page's solution was to introduce the concept of the 'Random Surfer', who'd visit a portion of a graph, explore it to build up a local picture of what's important, and then get bored after several clicks and switch to a random page in a completely new region of the network.

This approach to computing citation analysis using a divide and conquer approach was novel, because no-one had ever had the means or the motivation to analyse such a massive network. The breakthrough was making the problem tractable, creating an infrastructure and algorithm that allowed the network to be explored and understood in small fragments. This allowed the seemingly overwhelming challenge of analysing the web to be divided up. Then Page and Brin built a search engine called BackRub to utilise the new PageRank index, and by doing so were able to prove it would scale: the more they processed, the better their results.

Returning to the original question; when did they realize the PageRank algorithm would be a useful indicator of good search results?

"Page and Brin noticed that BackRub's results were superior to those from existing search engines like AltaVista and Excite, which often returned irrelevant listings. 'They were looking only at text and not considering this other signal' Page recalls. That signal is now better known as PageRank. To test whether it worked well in a search application, Brin and Page hacked together a BackRub search tool. It searched only the words in page titles and applied PageRank to sort the results by relevance, but its results were so far superior to the usual search engines - which ranked mostly on keywords - that Page and Brin knew they were onto something big." -- John Battelle

In other words, like all good scientists, Page and Brin knew PageRank would be great after they ran the experiment, saw the results, and saw how exceptional they were.

So as well as a fascinating story, there's a marvellous moral in the genesis of Google.
It's not enough to have a great idea.
You need to build it.
You need to prove it.


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