Saturday, May 13

While scanning over the long backlist of unread emails from the Brin-L list, I came up across these gems:

"...it is a badge of skill to be able to correctly characterize a mass. We bet Heinikens on what a tumor is likley to be. You get lots of points when you look at something and casually intone "Looks like a pleomorphic xanthoastrocytoma to me" and the pathologist confirms your diagnosis" (and this was from a surgeon)

The possibilities to use this phrase are endless; you could score points anywhere! You find something unpleasant under the sofa while rummaging for money - 'Looks like a pleomorphic xanthoastrocytoma to me.' Someone cooks a particularly nasty turkey in the oven; when it finally emerges, you say 'Looks like a pleomorphic xanthoastrocytoma to me.' The surgeon continued later:

"Now if you really want to be cool just say looks like a PXA; Now you are in the neuroncologic geek inner circle."

[thanks to Bob Zimmerman]

6:54 PM | permalink | discuss

A new American Space Force? Sen. Bob Smith says, "Whoever controls space tomorrow will win the next war." Former Air Force Secretary Pete Aldridge thinks, "the idea is dumb as dirt."

More interesting is NASA's proposal to send a modified version of the Mars Pathfinder to Mars in 2003, using the rationale of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.' The New Pathfinder however will have virtually no base station, but the rover will be hugely beefed up and able to move a blurringly fast 100 metres... per day.

What is today's most unreported story? The fact that there are so many unreported stories. Speaking of which, there's Project Censored, whose aim is to "explore and publicize the extent of censorship in our society by locating stories about significant issues of which the public should be aware, but is not, for one reason or another."

US network media news coverage of foreign events is now at 7-12% of air time, down from 40% in the days of Cronkite and Reynolds. So much for the world's only superpower to have interest in international affairs.

12:33 PM | permalink | discuss

Friday, May 12

This has to be the most heartwarming story I've read for a good while now, not because it's romantically written, but because I can empathise. I encourage you to read The Astronaut from Wyoming.

11:49 PM | permalink | discuss

The IDG books group, the guys who write the '... for Dummies,' series, have gone on an amusing legal spree to try and weed the Internet of any sites that mention the words 'for Dummies.' Strangely enough, most of the people who are being threatened normally respond by sending extremely sarcastic letters that do not fail to extract the Michael.

From the Ulysses for Dummies site: "We never received your telecopy dated January 20, 1998. We presume that the reason behind this is that we do not have either a fax machine nor a fax number, nor does a fax number appear on either the "Ulysses for Dummies" or "From Hunger" site. We would be grateful to know to what number this telecopy was sent, since it's entirely possible we may have further telecopies waiting for us at that number."

A report on corporal punishment in Chinese schools. It's my opinion that teachers are probably the most important profession in existence; a truly excellent teacher can affect a student's life forever, and so can a truly terrible teacher. Unfortunately, teachers are criminally underpaid in many countries; this inevitably results in people who'd otherwise make good teachers migrate to higher paying jobs. A side-effect is that you also get a significant percentage of teachers who aren't the best we can offer.

My solution - use every penny we have, everything to improve the education system. First task: cut the red tape. My parents are both academics, and my mother's a teacher, and the amount of useless administration work she has to do is unbelievable. Whether anyone actually reads any of it is anyone's guess.

Second task: Make it easier to sack bad teachers. In practice, it is almost impossible to sack a bad teacher. You can encourage them to leave, but if you get into the official sacking procedure, it can take a huge amount of time and money; meanwhile, the future of that teacher's students is steadily going down the drain.

Third task: Hire better teachers. Boost their salary by a factor of two, or more. Get rid of this performance-related pay crap; there are simply too many variables to make it work properly.

During a conversation about the infinite woes of Star Wars Episode 1, Colin conjectured that the movie was 'All fart, no shit.'

10:17 PM | permalink | discuss

Thursday, May 11

It's nothing less than the end of an era - I finally have free, 24 hours unmetered Internet access. Ah... In celebration of the fact that this weblog will undoubtedly eat up even more of my time, I'm composing a song called 'I am the Very Model of a Weblog Writer Maniac.'

Hah - superbugs! You've heard about them in the news, that they'll be resistant to all known antibiotics and together with the UN black helicopters, the FBI and the Knights Templar, they'll conspire to the downfall of the human race. What you haven't heard is that the entire genome for a superbug has been unravelled in one day.

After a bit of research, I've discovered that the Grid project I was writing about earlier is simply distributed computing, albeit on a slightly larger, more co-ordinated and private scale. How last millennium.

8:32 PM | permalink | discuss

Wednesday, May 10

Now that the whole 'I love you' email virus has calmed down a bit, I thought I'd write down a few thoughts. There's been some pretty intense discussion on the lists I subscribe to about the virus, and I've noticed that a significant minority of the 'Old Guard' take the stance that, 'It's your fault that opened the attachment, you shouldn't have been so careless.'

Is this true? Many of the more computer proficient of us will carefully check each attachment they receive, and are unlikely to run any executables from strangers. We think that people should naturally be suspicious of all emails and attachments.

Personally, I took that stance as well. However, a surgeon emailed the list, describing the end of his day. He have to trawl through dozens of emails and would automatically open every Word and text file attachment that he received; he was simply too tired and overworked to do anything else, especially when all his emails were from work colleagues. How could anyone possibly place any blame whatsoever on this guy?

Another example of the arrogant attitude the 'Old Guard' takes is that computers are easy to use. I heard a friends saying that 'The idea that computers are difficult to use is a myth. With Windows there's no excuse for someone to be unable to use a computer.'

Excuse me? People who've used Windows for all their life might think it's intuitive, but it's most definitely not. Take a few seconds out, and look at your screen. Imagine how it would look to someone who doesn't know how to use Windows? Dozens of small buttons line the taskbar, and you have strange tabs across each window proclaiming 'File' and 'Format'. What do these mean? The three buttons at the top right of the window - the minimise, maximise and close buttons. Do they really represent what they do?

I frequently get frustrated with people who can't seem to complete what I think are simple computer operations like printing a file out or making a shortcut. What I don't remember are the countless hours of exploration and questions that I had to ask to understand what I do now. Computers shouldn't have to take that long to use.

11:11 PM | permalink | discuss

There's a very interesting article about new tech companies hiring people based on their wackiness and ability to think laterally (not necessarily in that order). At the end it's got a few lateral problems, and I'm quite pleased to say that I managed to find the 'out of the box' answer for the cake problem. How good am I? (that's a rhetorical question, thank you very much).

All 250 schools in Philadephia now have to wear school uniforms. But what's the big deal? Frankly, school uniforms do promote a sense of community, and you can really feel proud of your school sometimes.

Lately, I've been getting myself worked up over exactly what I'm going to talk about at the TED11 conference next year. It's probably not going to be Mars, because that's too predictable. Bearing in mind that this is likely to change over the next 9 months, what I would like to talk about it giving youth opportunities.

Some readers might have witnessed my rant about how difficult it was to get sponsorship for a competition, run entirely by student volunteers. They'll also have noticed that I believe that youth-created sites, such as those at Thinkquest, far outshine many commercial offerings. What's the deal?

People don't seem to recognise the huge source of ideas and of energy that the youth can offer. It's sad when you have skilled and motivated students who want to achieve something, but are usually knocked back by organisations or companies because they're too young. Surely people have realised that age doesn't always equate to competence? There are some things the youth can do better than adults. In a way, I'm arguing for more vocational education for students, rather than the sometimes impractical and theoretical education students receive right now. The youth can accomplish incredible things, but no-one gives a damn. We're just kids - who cares?

Damn it, students are willing to work for free. Helping students achieve practical things in the outside world makes sense educationally, morally and financially. Imagine how much companies would pay for any of the Thinkquest finalists, or to have someone create the artwork and organise an international competition? Yet they don't want to take that work for free?

If there's one thing I could tell the attendees at the conference, that would be it; and they're the type of people who are most likely to understand what I'm saying, and have the balls and power to actually do something about it.

6:45 PM | permalink | discuss

Tuesday, May 9

From the makers of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (link to follow) comes Timmy Big Hands, a daily updated comedy site. I haven't had the time to look at it properly but the cartoons section, comprised completely of Corel Clipart, is pretty damn funny [thanks to Neil of the Eclipse Cafe]

10:48 PM | permalink | discuss

No links in this post, but a short piece on how governments don't 'get' the Internet.

I was talking to my dad, who works at Liverpool University, about some kind of UK/European government Internet initiative called the 'Grid'. Basically, it appears that some guy has written a book about the 'Grid' - a new restructured Internet based on a three-tier model of computing power, knowledge and information. The UK and European governments have gotten awfully excited about this and are pouring tens of millions into developing this Grid to help vault them ahead of America.

It seems strangely diffuse, what this Grid is supposed to be. Is it supposed to be a new infrastructure, with high bandwidth lines across Europe, or is it some kind of closed off, independant network? If it's the former, well, no problem. But I don't think it is.

What appears to have happened is that some bureaucrat, on being asked the question, 'How can we make the UK and Europe 'better' at the Internet?' thought up this idea. To me, it's a fundamentally flawed question and solution.

The Question

It isn't the British governement's responsbility to go and make a 'better' Internet. If they wanted to do that, they should have tried 10 years ago, not now. Best if they leave it up to private hands. In fact, it's downright patronising for the government to say 'Well, we're going to make a better Internet for you, whether you like it or not.' What they should be doing is to improve the infrastructure of the Internet, then sit back as the tax rolls in from the new Internet companies.

The 'Solution'

Creating UK-specific networks that are closed off and monitored smacks very closely of government regulation, a serious no-go area once the Free Speech lot have got their act together. And exactly what is this network supposed to do? If you close it off from the rest of the world, it'll stagnate. If you incorporate it into the Internet, it'll make bugger all difference since people don't seem to realise that there isn't a 'British' part of the Internet. It's a huge amorphous glob of information.


Why is it that I haven't actually heard of this Grid before? And why is it that I've never heard of the plans to pour tens of millions into it? Has it ever occurred to anyone in the government that they should tell the public about the idea and expose it to criticism? If it survives the innumerable assaults, fine, go ahead and do it. But I get the sneaking suspicion that if the public, and especially the Internet-savvy public, heard about this, it'd get less votes than Frank Dobson.

No, the government thinks it can do things best without us ignorant savages butting in.

6:22 PM | permalink | discuss

Monday, May 8

At Edge, they're running an ongoing feature called What is today's most important unreported story? Some gems include:

The Immortalisation of Humanity by Clifford Pickover, How Will the Internet Influence Democracy by Howard Rheingold and Survival Depends on the Race Between Education and Catastrophe by Leon Lederman.

7:38 PM | permalink | discuss

About the defacing of the Cenotaph in the recent disorder that happened in London (hmm, that's not even a real sentence). A lot of people have said something to the effect of 'I believe in free speech, but this goes too far.'

Uh uh. Free speech isn't an analogue affair, it's discrete. Either you have it, or you don't. Slippery slope, and all that stuff. Frankly, if the people who defaced the Cenotaph want to alienate the entire UK population and destroy any vestige of credibility that they once had, I'm all for it. But if they want to persuade and convince people, they'd better have a damned good argument for whatever the hell they're supposed to be protesting about.

Which brings me quite nicely onto the rather overblown Winerlog affair. For the non-bloggers out there, there's a guy called Dave Winer who I'm told is a Big Man in the Internet and Weblogging world. He runs a site called Scripting News. Webloggers have a love-hate relationship with Dave, to the extent that someone actually set up a Weblog dedicated to the life and postings of Dave; hence, Winerlog.

Unsurprisingly, most of Winerlog's postings weren't exactly complimentary, but apparently Dave didn't mind too much. Recently, the guy who founded Winerlog handed over the reins to someone else, and apparently the quality degraded (I don't read Winerlog, so I wouldn't know personally). Winerlog happens to be hosted on the Userland server, which is incidentally run by Dave Winer himself.

A day or two ago, Dave decided to shut down the Winerlog operation, citing abusive comments, defaced Userland graphics and other such mularky. He is entitled to do this according to the Terms of Service (or whatever it's called) on Userland.

So. There's been a lot of discussion about this in the weblog world. Normally I wouldn't comment on this since Vavatch Orbital is supposed to be a Weblog-Free Zone (tm), but this is news in itself. A lot of people have been talking about free speech in relation to this. Some people are taking the predictable stance that Dave wants to retain executive control over all the sites under Userland, the most frequent comment being on the lines of 'What will you do if someone makes a comment that you disagree with, regarding gun control or homosexuals? Will you take it down?'

Of course not. He doesn't appear to be a fool, but the realms of rational thinking break down when someone begins a long and protracted campaign against you personally. I'm sure Dave thinks he has perfectly justifiable reasons for doing what he did, but he's got to face the possibility that he's just rationalising his decision.

My take is that Dave overreacted. If Winerlog was as childish as it's supposed to be, most people have the wit to see this and not take it seriously. Yes, I'd get hugely annoyed if someone started up Adrianlog or whatever, perhaps annoyed enough to do what Dave did, but in the final analysis, who cares? The people whose opinions I care about and respect will not be stupid enough to take this hypothetical Adrianlog seriously.

As Edward Gibbon the historian once wisely said, "I never make the mistake of arguing with people for whose opinions I have no respect."

Problem is, there are many people in this country whose opinions I don't respect, but we live in a democracy, so their vote counts. Incidentally, you have to make sure you don't grow too thick a skin; that path just leads to stubborn blindness and an unwillingness to take criticism.

Oh, come on, would someone just ask a question? There's been dozens of people reading this, but no-one's asked anything. Anything at all [read the last posting for details, and further back on Friday for the original idea].

6:24 PM | permalink | discuss

Sunday, May 7

In lieu of the fact that I:

a) Didn't have enough time
b) Was watching Futurama
c) Couldn't be bothered

, I didn't set up the 'Ask the Culture' form as promised. In the meantime, feel free to ask any random questions with the subject 'Ask the Culture' in my email form. Good questions might be 'How would I invade France' or 'Why are there pigeons outside that are staring at me?' The Culture can guarantee a personalised response, although we can't say exactly what that response will be; it could be anything from a full worked-up solution to a nuclear warhead delivered from orbit.

Continuing the time travel thread, Rich emailed me this:

"I've just worked out the time dilation effect for a spacecraft orbiting a non-rotating black hole at the last stable circular orbit. The factor turns out not to depend on the mass of the black hole - for every second that passes for the spacecraft, sqrt(2) seconds pass for an observer at infinity. This means that orbiting the black hole in this manner gets you as much time dilation as travelling in a spaceship in flat spacetime at about 0.7c. Once again, I don't guarantee the absence of mistakes...

(Working this out for a rotating black hole would be *much* more tedious and I really can't face it on a sunny Sunday afternoon.)"

So, all you have to do is go and find a black hole, make an interstellar spacecraft and pop over to its last stable circular orbit. No problem.

Cryogenics sounds like such an attractive proposition now, compared to bona-fide time travel, doesn't it?

11:01 PM | permalink | discuss

Okay then, maybe time travel isn't as easy as strapping a nuclear rocket to your back:

"I just saw your thing about travelling into the future using nuclear rockets. It'll work, of course, but it won't be very effective. The "gamma factor" for relativistic time dilation is (1-(v/c)^2)^(-1/2). Even at half the speed of light relative to Earth this factor is only 1.15, which means that for every hour of proper time on the ship 69 minutes of coordinate time pass on Earth. This isn't very impressive, especially when you consider that just by sitting at home doing nothing you'll be going into the future at 60 minutes for every 60 minutes of coordinate time.

What's more we don't even approximately have the technology to accelerate a ship to 0.5c. The best nuclear thermal rockets we could probably build now (things like NERVA or Timberwind) only have exhaust velocities of about 10km/s using hydrogen as reaction mass, which is only about twice the exhaust velocity of something like a space shuttle main engine; even with gaseous core fission rockets the exhaust velocities only get about as high as 15km/s - a fission rocket could then only accelerate a vehicle to about three times the speed of a similar vehicle using chemical rockets. The gamma factor is so close to one that I'm not even going to bother calculating it.

Things don't get much better even if we had the technology to make fusion rockets. I haven't done the calculations in any kind of detail, but the best exhaust velocities we can expect are probably around 0.05c, which means that a (single stage) fusion rocket vehicle with a mass ratio of 20 (which is just about the best possible) will only get to about 0.15c, at which gamma is 1.01. It might be worth it for interstellar colonisation, but not for time travel.

This message has been brought to you by Culture List Withdrawal Symptoms Inc, Mistake Infested Calculations PLC, and


See - real science, with numbers and long words and everything. Rich has written other stuff like this, including his Very Brief History of Time. There's also the FAS page on nuclear propulsion. His parting comments:

"I'll have to think about the sorts of time dilation that you could get with antimatter rockets or parking your ship in the last stable circular orbit around a black hole of mass M (interestingly, the last circular orbit is some way outside the horizon; it's probably the place to sit to get the best time dilation effect because you needn't be running your rockets all the time to prevent yourself from falling into the hole)."

4:50 PM | permalink | discuss

I've been paying a lot more attention to web-design and user-friendliness in general these days, in preparation for the Thinkquest site. Normally I don't have to look too far - after seeing an advert in a magazine for a Sony Vaio, I decided to go and check their homepage out. After an interminable wait, finally a button saying 'World of Vaio' appeared; this then took me to a Flash/Non-Flash selector. Since I'm not about to be impressed by animation, I click on Non-Flash. It doesn't work. I click on Flash. After 30 seconds, that doesn't work either. This is the Sony Europe HQ homepage, and their 'World of Vaio' subsite doesn't work. It's a disgrace.

I was having a chat with a friend about time-travel, and we noted on the fact that we already have time-travel into the future; just strap a nuclear rocket to your back and relativistic effects will do the rest. People tend to forget that when they ask 'Is time-travel possible'.

A nice little animation taken by the SOHO satellite of the planetary alignment.

3:02 PM | permalink | discuss