Saturday, June 3

I've forgotten exactly how easy it is to contact someone on the Internet. For the oft-mentioned Thinkquest project I'm working on (the plans for which are steadily becoming even more and more unbelievably...) I've been trying to do some research on the topic in hand. Now, I figured that getting interviews with leading scientists not only:

a) Means that I have to do less writing

but also

b) Means that people will be very impressed.

Of course, most naysayers out there would say that people are too busy to talk about interviews with annoying kids. And how are you going to find out their email addresses, eh? (postal addresses and phone? Don't be silly.) Most scientists in the astrobiological field, even the well known ones, have public email addresses that they check often (like the Chief Scientist of Seti@Home). NASA is a bit more wary with their email addresses. On trying to find Matt Golombek's email address (Mars Pathfinder Project Scientist) I was told that they're not open to the public and I should email the press office. A few minutes searching and I dig up his resume as well as what I need.

Which all goes to say that the Internet is great. Now all I have to do is to figure out some questions to ask the two scientists who replied far too early (that is, within about 30 minutes) for my liking.

About the Thinkquest project - one of the impossibly ambitious ideas I have is to make the most stunning Flash intro they've ever seen. It's probably not going to be on the same level as some of the premier Flash designers out there (who have far too much time on their hands) but, by God, if the Thinkquest judges are going to be impressed by Flash, then they'll get their pound of flesh. I anticipate scoring the intro to Strauss' Blue Danube and basing it partly on the famous 2001 sequence. Cinematographical ecstacy.

6:24 PM | permalink | discuss

Thursday, June 1

There was an excellent programme on TV today, Mysteries of Lost Empires. The series kicked off with an episode on two teams building trebuchets (a 'super-catapult', if you will) that were used in the 13th century to knock down castle walls. The NOVA online site is extremely impressive; they seem to cover all the parts of the programme. More on trebuchets.

You may have noticed the redesign - I hope you like it. The image in the top left corner is from the cover of Look to Windward, Iain Banks' soon-to-be-released new Culture novel. I had to tidy it up a bit and remove the title, of course.

At the moment there's a gaping black hole to the left of the main content bar. I'm hoping to fill that up with occasional snippets and a new idea I've got called '5 word book reviews.' Wait and see.

11:57 PM | permalink | discuss


This was taken a few weeks ago, but the setting of the room has hardly changed. Note the never-used but impressive-looking Alpha Centauri game chart on the wall, the person sitting in front of the computer (who, by all accounts, probably hasn't moved). Then there's the familiar detritus scattered across the desk; envelopes, Yellow Pages (I forget why), biscuits (usually there's always some kind of snack food lying around). And of course the eponymous Commander Sheridan doll being attacked by a space alien (koala bear).

2:30 PM | permalink | discuss

Wednesday, May 31

There comes a time in your life when you have to face up to the facts, and do what must be done. When all else has failed, when there are no other options - when you have to buy a 18th birthday present for a friend, and no-one else is going to pick one for you.

The problem is, whenever I try finding a neat and expensive (yet not too expensive) 18th birthday present, I tend to pick things that I want for my birthday. I set off at Play247 looking for DVDs for this person; Play247 is probably the only Internet seller of Region 1 (read: new and American) DVDs in the UK. I was then told that you don't give people videos for their 18th birthdays (could've fooled me, looking at some past parties I've been to).

I then progressed to Letsbuyit.com. These guys have probably spent millions on their marketing budgets in the UK, let alone in Europe, yet they're not actually selling that much stuff. True, their bulk orders of blank CDs do sell out fairly quickly, but I can't see how they make much money. Still, co-operative buying is a nice original idea which deserves to succeed.

Remembering reading about remote control helium-filled flying saucers, I found Plantraco's product range - great stuff! Remote control flying saucers and blimps - could there be anything more fun? I asked myself. I concluded reluctantly that, yes, there probably were more fun and practical things than getting a RC flying saucer for your 18th birthday (especially when the shipping to the UK costs $70).

My last port of call was the ACME Klein Bottles manufactory. They guarantee, among other things:

"We warrant each Acme Klein Bottle for a period of FIVE YEARS to be absolutely free of any magnetic monopoles. If you discover one, contact us immediately and we will refund your purchase price right after claiming the Nobel Prize."

Now, even with my dubious tastes in presents, you'll have to admit that these Klein bottles are pretty cool. I'm thinking - this guy is a physicist, he'll appreciate these weird zero volume, boundary free, nonorientable manifolds - not only that, but he'll understand what those terms mean as well! I'm thinking - the Klein Stein. He likes physics and he likes to drink; what could be better than a marriage of those two elements, I ask you?

9:25 PM | permalink | discuss

Tuesday, May 30

My net connection has been acting strange today - no web access, but everything else worked. So I was forced to venture into the areas of the net that I'd hoped I'd never see again... I fired up the telnet program and started pottering about a server I've got access to, then in a flash of inspiration, loaded up a text-based browser within the telnet program. My elation turned out to be premature when I realised I had absolutely no idea how to use Lynx and most sites were completely unreadable. That, coupled with the fact that the terminal settings weren't right didn't result in a pleasant experience.

Apart from one site, mind - yes, it's BBC News Online - Low Graphics version. The link for the low graphics is handily the first you encounter with a text browser and it's surprisingly readable.

Anyway, the webserver was fixed and I'm never going back to text only again - I think I'll skip the current generation of WAP phones and wait until full-colour user-friendly GPRS phones come out later this year. Still... my experience with Lynx has given me an appreciation for the more basic things in life - an experience that I'll no doubt forget within one week.

The Understanding USA site has some great infographics. My favourite pages are the How to become a President and the War infographics - if you look closely, you can see the USA way off to one side, with one of the lowest war casualty rates in the world.

That, and the USA Interactive page which at first completely confused me with its incomprehensible 3D graphics. Then I discovered that they were supposed to be in VRML. Then I discovered that you couldn't actually view them in VRML. A true triumph of user-friendliness, eh?

11:59 PM | permalink | discuss

I knew it! It's true - children get sleepier as they get older. At last, some real scientific evidence to prove that my famed ability to sleep in any circumstance is not an anomaly.

Generally, my tendency to sleep is indirectly inversely proportional to the importance of the situation. In a dull lesson, though I might strive to sleep with every cell of my body, it won't come. However, say, in a lecture given by the person who's going to be interviewing me for a place at Cambridge (and there are only 10 people in the room including me), I'll be out within five minutes. This sometimes gets embarrassing when I fall asleep during a lecture at school and I'm only two metres away from the speaker.

9:49 AM | permalink | discuss

Monday, May 29

The World Rocket Paper Scissors Society is back online! Have a look at these opening gambits for a taster of the wondrous site that is the World RPS. Gasp at the Clinton vs. Yeltsin match!

11:53 AM | permalink | discuss

I was having a bit of a problem finding something interesting when I resorted to my 'never-fail' source of stories; BBC News Online. As ever, I managed to get something good. It's about students in a school in the UK taking their GCSE IT exams about 5 years before the average of 16 (9 years before, in one case).

I've always wondered exactly what was the point of this. I've got no objection to parents making their children study for IT if it gives the children something to do and they don't mind. What I do object about is that there are better things for children to be doing than studying for an GCSE exam in IT. Frankly, GCSE IT is laughable. If it wasn't, 6 year olds wouldn't be able to pass it. Try getting a 6 year old to pass GCSE English Literature - it ain't going to happen.

Now, if you want to give your child a learning experience, don't get them to do an exam. Get them to make something productive - like a website. Or a newsletter. Or an artwork made on the computer. They'll learn a significant amount more than studying for an exam whose components have dubious relevance. I'm 17 - I've learnt how to use Corel Draw, Photopaint, Dreamweaver, Flash and Powerpoint in the last few years. They've been of much more use to me than learning the exact definition of outdated computer terms and making a tiny program in Visual Basic.

10:57 AM | permalink | discuss

Sunday, May 28

Huh. Never knew that Infinity Plus had Moon Six by Stephen Baxter online - it's one of his better short stories.

Stephen Reid's just updated his Big Horizon travelogue (parts 8 to 12 have been uploaded). Like I said, well worth a read.

You get a lot of students going on world tours these days, as some kind of 'coming of age' ritual before they go to university. I'm of two opinions of whether this these backpack tours are anything more than holidays. To really get to know a place - and visiting all the sites listed in the Lonely Planet guidebook does not count - you'd either have to stay there for a while (we're talking several months within a smallish area) or go around with a 'native'.

I like the idea of just flying off somewhere and wandering about, bereft of guidebooks, rigid itineraries and schedules. Of course, that doesn't mean I'll ever get around to doing it, but it's still a nice idea.

1:07 PM | permalink | discuss