Saturday, July 1

A thousand voices
In a counterpoint chorus
That only they hear.

For a chaotic web,
Who can't believe that we have
Entropy distilled?

7:23 PM | permalink | discuss

The first walking robot, developed by Honda. I remember hearing about this a while back, and various pictures were painted of using robots to do shopping and so forth. I'm not particularly impressed though, since it's only got a 25 minute battery charge. Now, if you could get it to consume hydrocarbons for fuel, well, then I'd be impressed.

Matthew Rossi tells me that the plot of the Trigger that I reviewed yesterday is pretty much identical to Jack London's 'The Enemy of all the World'. A quick search on Amazon didn't uncover it, probably due to there being something like 30 different editions of London's 'Call of the Wild'.

In keeping with my book-a-day reviews, here's:

Hyperspace, by Michio Kaku

I hear that Kaku has quite the reputation for appearing on pretty much every science documentary to do with multiple dimensions, wormholes or faster than light travel. I can see why, since he's an excellent science writer. In Hyperspace, Kaku manages to describe the concepts involved with having more than the usual 3+1 dimensions (3D and time), then plunges straight into the whole Kaluza-Klein theory and strings. It doesn't go into as much detail as the Elegant Universe, which covers much of the same detail, but I found it far more accessible due to Kaku's style of writing.

Funnily enough, the most interesting parts of Hyperspace were the least scientific. For the last quarter of the book, Kaku discusses such pop-science topics as faster-than-light travel, time-travel, the fate of the universe, self-replicating machines and speculates on alien civilizations. I also get the idea that Kaku had the most fun writing those parts as well, although he manages to drop a few jokes in even the most difficult explanations.

Rating: 8 out of 10. Hyperspace is a great introduction to the physics of ideas you hear bandied about on Star Trek and pop-science TV shows, and you never feel like your brain is being challenged too much. It certainly isn't as thorough or detailed as some of the other pop-science books out there, but frankly that's it's advantage, and disadvantage.

Tomorrow: Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear.

1:12 PM | permalink | discuss

Friday, June 30

I'm going to try and get back to speed on writing content, so here's a mini-review of:

Trigger, by Arthur C Clarke and Michael Kube-McDowell

Trigger has a particularly interesting idea, in that there's a device that will detonate any explosives within a large radius. In other words, it'll blow up any ammunition or rockets, or most offensive projectile-based weaponary nearby. Inevitably, the NRA (or NAR, as they're called in Trigger) get more than a little annoyed and various shenanigans occur as this trigger device becomes installed across America.

Unfortunately, it takes a little too long to get into the book - you begin to get impatient with the hero's bumbling about trying to figure out what the device does for the first 100 pages (considering you already know what it does from the blurb on the back). To be fair, after that the pace does pick up, but the book lacks any real sense of direction - all sorts of interesting concepts and possibilities are mentioned, but never picked up again. And frankly, the ending of Trigger rivals that of Neal Stephenson's early novels in uselessness. The Trigger doesn't end abruptly though - it just happens after a ridiculously boring and completely pointless excursion concerning the hero (who, for some reason, disappears throughout the latter half of the book).

Rating: 3 out of 10. Good idea, bad execution (when have I said that before?). Don't be fooled by the presence of the man, Clarke - I doubt that he did much more than just look over the manuscript and give a few pointers. I'm getting less and less impressed with Clarke - he appears to be going the way of Asimov with endless cash-ins. The sad thing is, it'll probably sell more copies than other, more deserving, books due to saps like me falling for the blurb and the cover.

5:17 PM | permalink | discuss

I heartily agree with the sentiments in this article arguing that violent media is in fact good for children. Coddling children is only good for them up to a point - sooner or later they need to be able to express themselves and understand that the world, contrary to television shows and kids books, is not a nice place. I wrote an essay about this a while back when some pressure groups were arguing to have a Harry Potter book banned since it had depictions of evil - obviously not a healthy topic for kids, they believed; it's called Harry Potter and the Rabid Fundamentalists.

Interesting statistic: The coverage of the Elian Gonzalez story by the top 3 news channels in America has outstriped their combined coverage of the entire Kosovo war and the deaths of Princess Diana and JFK jr (the latter two are admittedly not as important as the Kosovo war, but still). It's glad to know that the truly world-shaping news stories will always be given precedence by the news media to ensure that we, the public, are kept informed on the matters that will allow us to contribute to the democratic process.

12:15 PM | permalink | discuss

Ye Gods! I was wondering exactly why so many people visited that Britney Spears essay I wrote a while back when I looked in my referrer logs and found that people were visiting it from:

Lycos - Lycos UK - Love and Living - Relationships - Celebrity

Specifically, there's a link to it that says 'What are the chances of going out with Britney Spears? - A mathematician takes the question very literally and concludes that the chances are pretty good.'

Sheesh. Since when did that get indexed, and since when was I a mathematician?

11:17 AM | permalink | discuss

Thursday, June 29

I just finished my last exam today, and had an interesting post-exam conversation at the pub. Apparently Michael Moore (of TV Nation fame) managed to get a Ficus tree elected over a congressman in a local election in America in his new series, the Awful Truth - quite impressive. His slogan was that 'here's a candidate who'll never talk back, never be bribed and never vote for pro-life issues."

After much head-shaking, the conversation quickly turned to the follies of the democratic process and I began to mutter darkly about the evils of tabloids and 'stupid people in general'. Speaking of which, one in five UK adults are 'functionally illiterate'.

Here's a BBC News story about the CBS report I mentioned yesterday.

Ordered Quarantine by Greg Egan: 25/6/00
Quarantine arrives: 9:00 AM, 27/6/00
Finished reading Quarantine: 11:30 AM, 27/6/00

Rating: 3 out of 10. Very good concept, bad execution. Possibly forgivable due to the fact that Quarantine is allegedly one of Egan's first novels. Tends to fall into the usual Egan trap of data-dumping and a plot that centres around science rather than people. Whenever I read an Egan book, I fail to give a damn about any of the characters and it never strikes me that much ever happens in them. True, they might travel to a million different universes, or live in a virtual city but I never feel involved in the storyline. It's all a little too drab, miserable and clinical for my tastes.

I'm off to a Leaver's Ball tonight, so it might be a little optimistic to expect an update tomorrow what with my liquid lunch today (but it's not out of the question).

5:49 PM | permalink | discuss

Wednesday, June 28

Random fact picked up while revising for Biology exam:

Sparging: The action of blowing sterile air through a fermenter to produce an air-rich medium.

10:17 PM | permalink | discuss

Normal service resumed. There was an interesting piece on Sky News today - they showed an excerpt from a CBS 'documentary' (hah!) on violent crime in Britain. The CBS programme claimed that we're experiencing a crime epidemic, showing such representative scenes as football hooligans trashing Belgium and fights in London. Apparently that was 'just the tip of the iceberg' as they showed a montage of night-time London that made it look like downtown New York, Kosovo and a pub at last orders all rolled into one.

The part that I found most amusing was their interview with a 'typical' victim of crime, an 80 year old woman who'd been assaulted on her front doorstep. As she showed the camera several newsclippings with large headlines about the crime, I thought to myself - 'If this is so typical, exactly why would the newspaper run it as a big story?'

Icing on the cake was provided by the presenter saying 'The statistics don't show the whole story of crime in Britain', when a few minutes later he proceeded to reel off a list of statistics to back up his case, including one saying that 'There are hundreds of shootings in Britain ever year!' And would you please like to enlighten us about the number of shootings in America every year? Or perhaps the number of killings?

Documentaries. Not worth the electromagnetic waves they're transmitted on.

7:19 PM | permalink | discuss

It appears that the usual place I put my weblog (Cambridge University student webserver) has gone and crashed so I've put this page up temporarily.

A few random thoughts:

I recently came into possession of 30 worth of book tokens and have to buy three different books that will look moderately impressive (since they're prizes). So, since I'm feeling a bit biology-ed out, here they are:

Godel, Escher and Bach (20th anniversary edition) by Douglas Hofstadter

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gradwell

Complicity by Iain Banks (had to get him in there somehow).

Listening to an old 80's song by Bomb the Bass, I heard those immortal words 'Dy-no-mite!' Ah, the good old days...

Speaking of which, I noticed Sky News' new interactive news service. Very impressive, until I realised that they should have been able to do it several months ago and even then they'd still be able to improve it. And that Digital Teletext is likely to have much more content, even if it won't have any streamed video.

BBC Knowledge held a hastily-cobbled together Mars Day full of programmes to do with Mars today. Certainly an admirable effort, and it had some extremely good programmes which were about as up-to-date as possible. Unfortunately those were balanced out by the programmes that had such lines as 'In the forthcoming Mars Pathfinder mission to be launched in 1997...'

Regular service will be resumed soon. Hopefully.

6:53 PM | permalink | discuss

Monday, June 26

I have a problem with web design. I think there are two schools of thought.

Bottom up: You plan out your page and think - "OK, I'll need a nice hierarchical menu over there and maybe some dynamic news thing over here. Then I'll have a background image..." and then you go and assemble/write/pilfer all the requisite JS, DHTML, pictures, graphics, Flash and programmers to do it all.

Top down: You spend several days looking around all the neat sites on the Internet, check out places like Assembler, Dynamic Drive and Web Reference, then read some weblogs for light relief. At these places, you find the very best in web design and all the neat little DHTML/Flash/JS applets you want. Then you think - hmm, they're all amazing, so now I have to figure out a way to fit them all into my site. Which ends up looking like a cross between a next-generation Boo and some technology-demonstration site (which, I suppose, are really the same thing).

Of course, most pages are designed from the middle. I normally have a good idea of what I want in a page, but then I'll go and spot some static background trick, or a floating graphic and decide that they'd be useful. Sometimes it goes a bit far. Checking out all the impossibly wonderful scripts at Assembler made me wonder exactly how I could incorporate this menu system into the front page of a site I'm doing. I spent about half an hour figuring out what numbers to change to make it work (that, after all, is what's important - I leave figuring out how the DHTML works for when I'm feeling particularly sharp).

It then struck me that I'd have to go and redesign the front page just to incorporate this admittedly neat component, even though it wasn't strictly necessary and didn't blend in with the rest of the site. So I gave it up.

The moral of the story is: Adrian, stop procrastinating and get on with some real work.

5:54 PM | permalink | discuss

Just visited the I Just Type weblog by the guy who did Big Horizon (a travelogue I mentioned a while back). He talks a bit about Futurama, which without a doubt is the best cartoon - no, animated show, on TV at the moment. Here's an interview with a Futurama writer. Excerpt:

Things Bender (a robot) can get away with
Hitting Dr. Zoidberg with a whip: Yes.
Stuffing 43 children into a phone booth: Yes.
Burning Fry's testicles with a cigar (off camera): Yes.
Selling human children to a Chinese restaurant for food: Yes.
Trying to blow up Earth: Yes.
Killing humans onscreen: No.
Sex with humans: No.

Some good Futurama sites include Can't Get Enough Futurama (all episodes encoded in RealVideo) and The Futurama Chronicles (my favourite, since I wrote a transcript of a talk given by the show's creators at the TED9 conference. That's me, Elemental)

2:50 PM | permalink | discuss

I mentioned an idea I had for some kind of internet repository for etiquette tips a while back - unknown to me, there already is Etiquettesource.com. A quick visit provided me with this pearl of wisdom:

When someone asks you during a meeting or introduction, "How are you?" a welcome reply would be a cheerful, "Very well thank you. And how are you?"

[snip long, protracted sarcastic remarks]

Radio theatre isn't really my kind of thing, but SciFi.com has a large library of high quality science fiction radio theatre.

Interesting poll at the BBC's 'Teen' website, So:

Women's mags: blamed for anorexia?
No, there are records of anorexia dating back to 1500s
Yes, they perpetuate the myth that thin is beautiful

Talk about putting words into your mouth...

11:23 AM | permalink | discuss

Sunday, June 25

Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Life is not so short but that there is always time enough for courtesy." Believe it or not, I do try to adhere to something called common courtesy - sometimes it's hard to when others don't, though.

I can't say I understand the reasoning behind 'Creation Scientists'. If they do want to teach alternatives to evolution at schools, why don't they give the opportunity for students to learn about all the other stories of creation by the other major world religions, instead of simply Christianity? Why should the Biblical version of creation be any more accurate than that told in the Koran or Torah? (I'm risking myself here because I get the nasty feeling I'm going to get some email about this...)

It never fails to amuse me whenever I see BT promoting itself as being on the forefront of the 'Internet revolution', considering that their website is one of the most poorly-designed in the world. I suspect that the old website (which at least worked, sometimes) didn't work properly in Netscape due to its dubious use of layers. And the new website - don't get me started. Apart from the fact that I can no longer enter the new 'improved' site since it kicks me out after 10 seconds (I've 'timed out', apparently), BT has deleted all the account information it ever held on anyone so I have to dig out all the old bills to find out my account number again. What a joke.

This, however, isn't funny. According to my website stats, more people have read my essay on Britney Spears than have accessed my 'About me' page. In fact, over 4% of my page accesses have been to that damn essay. I'm not impressed - I may have to take it down one of these days, it's a bad influence.

3:56 PM | permalink | discuss