Thursday, November 2

While coming back from an absurdly easy Quantitative Biology assessed practical, I passed by Heffers, my local bookstore and noticed a sign in the window with the words 'Ken Macleod' in it. Now, with Ken's excellent The Stone Canal and The Sky Road novels, he's fast on track to becoming one of my favourite writers. So while I was wondering why I hadn't noticed this sign before, I decided to pop in to investigate - and then I realised that the 'Ken Macleod' notice was in fact about a evening of science fiction and fantasy authors today, including Paul McAuley and Tom Holt. I immediately flew over to the enquiries desk to get a few (free) tickets, then called on a few friends to come along.

We arrived on time and spent a while draining Heffers of its money by consuming glasses of wine and various refreshments, while trying to find where they'd hidden all the writers. About half an hour late, the writers warily stepped up out of the basement, no doubt dreading the onslaught of the fanboys (there was a surprisingly small number of people there, considering that this is Cambridge. But not too surprising, when you consider that I only found out about the evening two hours in advance). And indeed Ken Macleod was there and immediately accosted by a few fans. We hovered around a few metres within his range (not trying to look too threatening) and were a bit put off when he walked past us.

Of course, I don't give up that easily and when we spotted him alone, I launched into a barrage of questions which my friend told me later were 'not questions you'd ask authors'. I think I started out by saying 'So, which book of your's should I buy? I've read these three (pointing towards them), but I heard that The Star Fraction isn't so good,' and then went on to ask him about whether the Sky Road was a part of the same series as his first three books (answer: No, it's not, it's a branch from the main timeline). Various other questions included whether he was going to write any short stories (no), what other authors did he like (lots), and whether he went on the Internet a lot.

He did mention that he used to go on rec.arts.sf.written a lot, but got told off for being too off-topic, so he doesn't really go there much more. I then mentioned that this wasn't a problem on the list I was subscribed to - a mailing list, in fact, called Culture. To my immense satisfaction, I managed to drop in the email address of said list, thus fulfilling one of my life objectives (sort of).

Ken is a top bloke, no doubt about it.

I then popped over to talk to Paul McAuley, not about any of his books, but about the fact that he was apparently once bitten by a barnacle.

11:23 PM | permalink | discuss

After writing the Steve Jones report, I decided to have a gander at the good old talk.origins newsgroup for a bit of amusement. And of course, I wasn't disappointed, with this wonderful exchange taking place:


This one is an easy one. Look all around you. Could all of this happened by only natural causes? Of course not. To think life evolved from some primordial soup of chemicals is ridiculous. I can mix chemicals all day long and never get a hint of life.

So I actually tried it. I got a big pot of water, heated it to give it energy, then mixed in a whole bunch of chemicals. Additionally, I hooked up a battery with cathode/anode to give it an electrical impulse (adding some salt too!). And to my surprise, no life came from it.

Another person replied:

This bears a close resemblance to my results which prove


Yup, I was pretty surprised too. I mean, I've seen lots of novels and presumably someone had to write them. So I decided to test it. I got lots of pieces of paper and a typewriter and put the first sheet of paper into the typewriter and.......

NOTHING! Absolutely nothing happened! No horror story emerged. I didn't produce a single time-travel science fiction novel. There were no tales about a transvestite wife-swapping economist with psoriasis who inherits a key to the sacred room of the mud wrestling concubines of King Nebuchadnezzer. A complete lack of comic novels about the Black Death written from the point of view of a rat. Nothing.

Clearly novels are not written by humans. God must do it.

I thought this was pretty good, but then I fell off my chair laughing when I read this rebuttal:

Scott [another creationist] and I will continue to dismantle your precious items one at a time until you realize that you have been clinging to false beliefs.

Now, don't get me wrong, I have nothing against Christianity or religion. I do have a beef with people who try and spread misinformation about so-called Creation Science. I'm sorry, but there is absolutely no excuse for peddling lies to children such as 'evolution doesn't happen', 'the world was created 4000 years ago' and 'humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time.'

[Note: The first post criticising abiogenesis (getting life from previously inanimate materials) is wrong in many respects, but the most obvious is that it look hundreds of millions, if not billions, of years for life to have developed on Earth - it didn't just happen in one afternoon]

It makes a tear well up in my eye, this news story about ISS. It might be unbelieveably over-budget, but there's just something wonderful about people inhabiting a new space station permanently.

The reason I haven't updated my Essays section of my website for, oh, a year, is simply because I've been writing this weblog. However, it's struck me that there's plenty of good stuff in the archives, so this weekend I'll be introducing a new feature called 'Best of Vavatch' which will have links to my favourite posts.

4:27 PM | permalink | discuss

Wednesday, November 1

I just received an email from Stephen Reid (I Just Type) about Marshall T. Savage's book The Millenial Project: Colonising the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps. I've seen a little of the Millenial Project and didn't like it at all; these guys fulfil the worst parts of the stereotypical 'space wacko.' By that, I mean unsubstantiated hand-waving that sounds good, but only because if you're that vague then you're bound to be right about some things. They give the space community a bad name. I've got nothing against long-term planning, but the longer-term you get, the more scientific and specific you must be.

I promised to write up a summary of Steve Jones' talk (okay, I promised to write a report, but I don't remember all of it any more), and that I shall do. His talk was really about his new book, Almost Like A Whale, basically a massively updated version and expanded version of Darwin's Origin of the Species.

It's called Almost Like A Whale because Darwin originally used that term to describe the process of evolution. Unfortunately, his American publishers told him that he needed a different title over there because people would probably think it was a book about whales. So he thought about this for a while and looked for some some more quotes from Darwin. One quote he liked particularly and relayed was Darwin's response when he was asked about what was the most interesting part of his famous journey of the HMS Beagle - 'Continual Puke.'

The American publishers thought about this for a while, as they do, and then came up with the alternative title 'Darwin's Ghost,' which Steve thought was fine (but not as good as his idea). Being Americans, there was of course still some opportunity for misunderstanding, and Steve wasn't too surprised to get a phone call from someone in the US who actually thought that Darwin's ghost had communicated to him from beyond the grave. You so crazy, you Yanks...

[Digression: My supervisor's husband is currently writing a new book based on his lectures notes called 'Sex Wars.' This was an unashamed ploy, I was told, to boost sales, and she gleefully related tales of how they wanted to style the cover in the way of 'Star Wars' and then put it on the top shelves of bookstores in America. If only...]

Steve actually spent a fair amount of time relating his experiences with creationists. "Creationists are like slippery monkeys. You back them into a corner with their argument and get your teeth into them, and then whoosh, they zoom off somewhere else with another argument." This certainly agrees with the reports I've read about other creationist/evolution debates.

But he did admit that they had a very minor point. "I like mocking creationists just as much as anyone else does, but when you get down to it, your average man on the street doesn't really understand why evolution works." And I'm sorry, but I don't recall exactly everything he said about how evolution works - if you want to find out I'd suggest that you buy his book.

He did structure his talk wonderfully well. Bringing up the topic of AIDS, he talked about evolution and natural selection - not of the HIV virus itself, but of humans. Roughly 1% of the entire human population - about 60 million people - are infected with HIV. However, one in six people have a genetic resistance against HIV in that they will live for many years, even decades, before AIDS manifests itself. This is actually scary in way, since these people will have no idea that they're infected and so will go on to infect others, but the fact remains that they have greater resistance. If, as he believes, HIV turns into a global pandemic (not that it isn't already a major global crisis), then we will probably end up with a human population that is entirely resistant to HIV in a few generations.

Why does he believe this? There are many similar viruses to HIV that exist among whales and monkeys, and they undoubtedly decimated their populations at first, but now to the whales and monkeys, contracting HIV is no more harmful than contracting a cold.

And how does HIV work? HIV is a retrovirus - what it does is invade your body and insert its own genetic code into your immune system cells. At first, there's a huge amount of this insertion for a few days, so you get symptoms akin to flu. Then everything goes quiet and the amount of HIV floating around in your blood drops dramatically - most of the HIV virus is now safely ensconced in your own cells. After a point in time - it could be one year, it could be five years - when there are large enough numbers of HIV in your cells, they begin to break out of your immune system cells, destroying them in the process, to multiply massively. The effectiveness of your immune system plummets and what kills you is not the HIV virus, but instead relatively harmful infections like the common cold or the flu - without the proper number of immune system cells that you normally have, you can't fight off these infections and you basically die.

[I take no responsibility for the scientific accuracy of the last part, having written it off the top of my head, but I'm fairly certain it's accurate]

So let's fast-forward. Remember that HIV is a retrovirus and works by inserting its own genetic code into your cells. By examining the genetic codes (the genomes) of modern organisms like whales and monkeys, we can discover that there are pieces of retrovirus codes scattered around their genomes. It's been discovered that many organisms share the same pieces of retrovirus codes in their genome, indicating that they had a common evolutionary ancestor. And if you look at the retroviruses in whales, you can discover that the other organism that has the most similar retroviruses is the hippo. This means that the hippo and the whale had a common ancestor that was once... Almost Like A Whale.

Not bad, huh? I'm surprised I remember so much of it. The lecture was truly a bargain at only 1 to get in - no wonder it was packed (luckily, I arrived with my friends well in advance and bagged the best seats).

8:32 PM | permalink | discuss

I think I've had my first real 'Cambridge' experience. It started out innocently enough with a jaunt to Emmanuel College bar, but when (by utter chance) I discovered I'd left my key in a friend's room, we came back at about 11:30 PM to pick it up, and while doing so started a conversation about various people in the college.

This then freewheeled onto what people were planning to do when their degree finished then switched over to an in-depth discussion of Artificial Intelligence (including what we believed it was, how it could be achieved, how you could test for it and whether we'd even recognise or understand it). This slowly broiled down into an hour long debate about what would happen if various forms of AI were developed and whether the human race would survive. Digressions included points about the carrying capacity of Earth, nanotech, the belief that we will achieve non-scarcity of resources within the next few decades and interstellar travel. My particular interest was how (and if) humans have escaped from the circle of natural selection and exactly what impact that had on our thinking, our attitudes and indeed higher intelligence in general.

Finally we broke free of the AI trap and started talking about (as usual, when you have two computer scientists/physicists and a biologist in the same room) open source software, the human genome project and the ethics of withholding genetic information. I took the opportunity to bring up my favourite topic of transparency, which was pretty much unnecessary since they all agreed with me.

And then to finish off at about 1:40 AM, we tried to convince ourselves that while many of the 'old' sciences such as physics have apparently had everything discovered, there were undoubtedly highly talented researchers working away at significant theories that never really received public attention since you'd need a PhD just to understand the damn thing.

[Also featured were quantum computing and whether it really did represent a paradigm shift in technologies, the innate nature of biology being a multi-specialist discipline and why transistors weren't that big a deal after all.]

It was probably the most intellectually stimulating discussion I've been in for a good few years, and that's partly due to the back-and-forth nature of it and how people really challenged my accepted views and forced me to rethink and explain them in different words.

If I may say so, when you stick three sharp yet flexible minds in the same room for two hours who share similar yet not identical interests, given the right conditions, the room can explode (and not in a physical sense).

Next time, we'll get a historian, a sociologist and maybe another biologist in the room, and then we'll have a partay. Probably might be a good idea to get a female point of view as well.

2:09 AM | permalink | discuss

Tuesday, October 31

I've heard a disturbingly large number of reports recently that people I know are getting highly stressed-out, overworked and homesick. This doesn't quite square with my experiences at university so far, since I remember going out on Sunday to get some food at 7PM to return to my room at 12PM where various people hung around for another hour casually insulting the (obvious) inferiority of education in North America.

There are two ways to get in and out of the collection of buildings in which I live - through the main gate, and through a security-card locked side door. The main gate is open for 24 hours a day, as far as I can tell, so the side door is really only for convenience depending on which way you're coming in. Against all common sense, the side door is locked during the evening, and during the day the only way you can get into the block is if you have a security card (if it was open during the day, and required security cards during the night, that'd make sense. But I digress).

The thing is, if you just want to go out using the side door, you can use a small button located about five feet away from the door (which is really an iron gate) - you don't need to use a security card. Now, it immediately occurred to me that if you had sufficiently long arms, then you could press the button standing outside the gate. Unfortunately, I don't know anyone with five foot arms, so you'd probably have to use a stick.

Coming back on Sunday night, we tried to open the gate using our security cards and were promptly rebuffed - because it was too late. Everyone proceeded to complain bitterly about the unfairness of it all and how it was a disgrace that Europe's richest college shouldn't be able to afford a gate that could be open all day, or indeed, some sort of biometric identification gate made out of diamond and engraved with gold, etc. etc. I then pointed out my high-tech solution to this veritable Gordian Knot of a problem, by poking a long stick through the gate to press the button inside. Pessimists to the last of them, they proceeded to pick holes in my plan, asking me where I'd store this stick since presumably I wouldn't carry it with my whenever I went out. So we looked around at the alley, trying to find good stick-storage pages.

"You know, I reckon the best place to put the stick would be behind this door here..." I said, gesturing to an always-open door which lead to a place where students could stow their bicycles, "... which already appears to have a stick hidden behind it."

So, to cut a long story short, we managed to used the stick to open the door which, as one of the more observant of us noted, was timed so that it would be open long enough for you to put the stick back in its proper place.

Yeah, us Trinity students really know how to have a blast, especially when we're not (successfully, in most cases) invading other college bars and visiting the bar that is located approximately 15 metres across and 10 metres down from where I'm sitting. You Yanks, you might have the world's most powerful economy but you still have to wait until 21 before you can start drinking...

About Steve Jones' lecture last night - I found it extremely good. He's an excellent speaker and managed to fit a highly respectable number of useful snippets into the talk, including how you can use retroviruses to work out evolutionary trees (much more interesting than it sounds). Also, he is a man of my own heart, bearing an ardent scorn for creationists and all their works. A full report will follow later.

3:53 PM | permalink | discuss

Monday, October 30

I feel absolutely shattered. With daylight savings time starting yesterday, I took the opportunity to stay in bed for an extra hour (this is, of course, what God intended DST for the first place). Unfortunately, this meant that when I was up at about 2:00 AM in the morning finishing off an essay and feeling really sorry for myself (and others), it was actually 3:00 AM for my body clock; in other words, not a good thing at all.

Surprisingly, I managed to fall out of bed at 8:00 AM and give a stunning performance at my Biology of Cells supervision. With my energy reserves for the morning thus completely drained, I slept through half of the following Biology of Cells lecture (hey - what are lecture handouts for anyway?), and in about half an hour I have an Evolution and Behaviour practical which is thankfully fairly short. I then plan to crash out for a few hours (might get something to eat, but it's not essential), buy some biology books, feel even more sorry for myself (and others), then drag my sorry self off to a Physiology supervision.

Most people would think that'd be enough for one day, but not me. My self-punishment levels have been cranked up pretty high today so I'm going with a friend to a talk by Steve Jones, entitled "Rewriting the Origin of Species: Is Homo sapiens just another animal?" And finally, when that's over, I'm going to get something to eat and very possibly die.

If I don't die, then you can expect to have further posts from me today.

Oh - URLs. There are some very nice posters that the Mars Society UK are selling (buy them! buy them all!), two of which I'm probably going to get - the Eclipse one and the Horsehead nebula. And on that theme, I've found that the Hubble Space Telescope has a surprisingly good website - definitely worth checking out for the photos.

11:34 AM | permalink | discuss