Saturday, November 11

I'm going to be introspective now, so you'd better listen up, because it doesn't happen very often.

Sometimes I wonder what I might have done differently in the past, if I was able to run things again. I wonder what I should have said to people I know, or what I shouldn't have said. I wonder whether I should have stopped something from happening, or started it.

But as we all know, if I'd done anything, even the smallest thing, differently, then I'd be a different person. I wouldn't be me. Would that be a good thing? I don't know. I've had a great deal of opportunities in my short life so far, and perhaps I would never had had these had I not made the mistakes I made in the past.

Everyone has regrets.

I also look to the future constantly. I have Plans, with a capital P, spanning a decade into the future. Ten years might seem like a short time to some of the older readers here, but to me, it's over half of my lifetime. I honestly don't know what the true goal of these plans is, but I intend to stick to them, whatever happens.

What else?

There are many things that puzzle me. I don't know how some people can commit atrocities. I don't know how some people can, sometimes, be foolish (although this is a subjective observation). I'm very often confused as to how some men can use women so badly.

If there are some constants in my life, some things that I could never do, it's to make a girl cry. I could never betray someone's trust. I could never abandon my honour.

Trust. Honour. They don't really make any sense these days, especially when they're drowned in the morass of post-modernism which I really don't identify with.

I look at some couples where the man does every dishonourable thing possible to his girlfriend, and I wonder why she stays with him. I wonder how he could ever do such a despicable thing. That's not to say that I'm perfect. I have some wonderful friends who have stayed loyal to me despite everything, friends who have kept my confidence even though it hurt them - not me - in the end. I'm lucky, and I don't deserve this.

That's the thing. I've heard the saying that luck is only really being adequately prepared to take advantage of fortuitious opportunties. So, in that way, I'm lucky. Everyone has their fair share of luck and opporunities which eventually average out to a normal distribution curve (what doesn't average out to a Normal curve these days?).

If you read this weblog, you might think that I'm some insanely lucky person who always has five different agendas on the go, and will somehow become famous in the future. Well, it's true. I do have at least five different agendas. I think I might become famous.

But if I do, it damned well won't be because of luck. It'll be because of my friends, and because of hard work. These things don't happen by themselves. They happen because I spend every minute of every day worrying about whether I've sent the right message to someone, whether I've made the right decision, whether I've done the right thing. I worry a lot.

Maybe worry isn't the right word. I think a lot. I consider things. I always have contingency plans. If something goes wrong, then I'll have a backup plan. As far as I'm concerned, nothing is futile.

Two things. I cannot betray someone's trust, and I cannot make someone who cares for me cry, not if I can help it. How many people can say the same?

10:36 PM | permalink | discuss

I've been involved in a couple of (non-fatal, thankfully) errors of judgement lately. The first occurred about two days ago, when I felt that all too familiar craving for popcorn settling over me. So I set up the popcorn in the blast-proof position (required by law ever since the Unfortunate Projectile Incident) on the floor covered by a kitchen towel and deemed that it was Good. Turning the popcorn machine on, I realised that I'd forgotten something - a drink of ribena. Foolishly thinking that the popcorn machine would be fine by itself for a couple of minute, I went down to the kitchen to fix myself a glass.

When I returned, I found a narrow spray of popcorn starting from the machine and ending at a wall three metres away. Luckily, most of the blast was contained by the kitchen towel, but I had to spend a while (in student terms, about one minute) tidying it up so the bedders (cleaners) wouldn't get annoyed the next morning.

My theory is that the popcorn, being at such a high energy within the machine, reverted to a primordial state of matter at Big-Bang temperatures, and thus quantum-tunnelled through the barrier of the kitchen towel, much as electrons can tunnel through short barriers (see, I know some science!).

The second close shave was this morning. I've just bought a new book, Winter's Heart, by Robert Jordan, and I spent a fair while reading it last night. Since my first lecture today was at 11:00AM, I figured that I'd surely be able to wake up in good time to get myself ready - on weekdays, I normally get up about 15 minutes before the alarm clock, and that's at 7:45 in the morning.

Unfortunately, my body conspired against me once again, perhaps realising that:

a) It was the weekend, and as far as my body was concerned, all bets were off when it came to getting up without some kind of alarm.
b) It knew that my first lecture would be with the most boring lecturer in existence.

All of this meant that when I finally woke up, feeling energised and rested, at 10:45AM, I looked at my alarm clock in mounting horror and got dressed, got my notes together and looked in the mirror to check that, yes, my hair was as bad as usual, in a record time, getting to the lecture early.

My body and mind - what a team, eh?

No matter how vocal I am about my dislike of Star Trek compared to Babylon 5, I still keep a keen eye on its progress and I'm pleased to say that I fully approve of how the recent Galaxy Ball convention went, set up in order to benefit Down's Syndrome sufferers. This sort of stuff is great - the fans of the show get to have fun meeting the actors, the actors get to have fun by just messing about, and all the money raised not just by tickets but also by auctions goes to charity. I for one found this convention report excellent (check out the actors of Voyager at Riverdance).

2:03 PM | permalink | discuss

Friday, November 10

Since I'm going to be staying in Cambridge for over ten days after the end of term, I've decided that I'm going to keep myself busy. This will partly be achieved by the construction of at least one, preferably two, trebuchets. Trebuchets are basically medieval siege catapults, but they're far more elegant in using a strong throwing arm and variable counterweight. God willing, we'll be throwing various (soft) projectiles at people punting down the Cam in no time... Here are the plans we're hoping to use.

Are you dumb? The Guardian thinks that the youth (18-24 year olds) in the UK are slowly losing brain cells, and has assessed this using its 'dumbing down' test. Try the quiz - I got 33 out of 38. Not a bad score, I think.

12:22 AM | permalink | discuss

Thursday, November 9

Apologies for the lack of updates recently - I'm sure everyone's been busy watching the election. I think a friend summed it up perfectly when he said that the American public voted for someone who they could identify with - an idiot shrub.

Anyway, there follows below the beginning of a (very short) account of my trip to London last Friday.

5:14 pm
You'd think that Douglas Adam's story about taxi drivers being aliens was merely restricted to the unfortunates who live in New York. Evidently this is also true for Cambridge, considering the remarkably circituous route that our taxi took to the station. Perhaps I should've been able to realise this from the map he was consulting, but all the same...

Anyway. I'm currently writing this on my Psion Series 5 on the train to King's Cross, and it's holding up respectably well. The keyboard is more than adequate to type and and considering that I bought it for less than half RRP (bless you, eBay), it was well worth it.

So I'm quite determined to get a fair bit of work done during the 80 minute journey (whether this'll actually get done is not related to the goodness of the Psion but rather the attention span of me)...

I am now beginning to appreciate the value of installing a large number of games on your palmtop...

I just can't help overhearing a conversation between two girls in the seats and beside mine. It never fails to surprise me how people can seemingly sum up the character of another person in a single sentence: 'Oh yeah, the problem is that Laura is always so wrapped up in being perfect and not being herself and she's so competitive...'

Now. I don't pretend to know Laura, but I sorely doubt that she is actually like this. However, I can hardly preach since I do it myself, but still. It's not nice. I don't really like to think about what others might say about me if they had to sum up what they thought of me in one sentence.

7:35 PM | permalink | discuss

Tuesday, November 7

Good old Prince Charlie has once again raised my ire with his 'informed' comments on the environment. According to Prince Charles, he has no doubt that humanity's disregard for nature has caused some of the recent natural disasters (by that, he means the flooding).

Luckily, my time was saved by two people who have already expressed my exact sentiments about his comments:

Charles should restrict himself to talking to his flowers - in private. If he wishes to make public comment on issues such as global warming, BSE etc. he should at least demonstrate some grasp of the science and not simply bombard us with a load of half-baked opinions.

When will Prince Charles realise that he is not qualified to make such statements. No-one can say with any certainty what the direct cause of the floods were as the atmosphere is such a complex system. Crazy as it sounds, it may even be due to a butterfly in Brazil flapping its wings. There is a debate to be had and much more to be investigated. Charles contribution, although well meaning is actually unhelpful.
I'm quite disappointed that his son, Prince William, has chosen to study the non-subject of 'History of Art'. I honestly can't think of a more useless subject for him to study, but then, I'm a scientist. Clearly, it isn't the job of the royals to actually know or learn anything - we leave that to their advisors.

6:05 PM | permalink | discuss

Monday, November 6

As promised, here's an article about the Culture mailing list written (and copyright) by Andrew Frost for a magazine in Sydney. I hope it sheds some light on the mysterious 'Culture' I keep on referring to...

The Culture

Last week something bad happened. The List Server, buried inside a casehardened bunker in the frozen wastes of arctic Norway, was taken out with a direct hit from a cruise missile. From my home in Sydney the only way I could tell that something was wrong was by the total silence on the web.

The blast must have been a massive nuclear explosion. The Culture List Server is buried under kilometers of concrete and steel, attended by scientists in white lab coats and clipboards, attending to the supercomputer’s every need. I was frightened and alone… my daily addiction for the List couldn’t be met. In a cold sweat, I knew that I’d soon be going into withdrawal.

Everything I’ve just told you is a figment of my imagination. Well, everything except the bit about addiction and withdrawal. Let me explain. I can receive up to 500 email messages a day from people I don’t know and have never met. We have one thing in common, The Culture, and the science fiction author Iain M Banks who created it.

Banks is a Scottish writer best known for his series of twisted novels beginning with The Wasp Factory and continuing with others such as Complicity and The Crow Road. Banks also writes a series of loosely connected sci-fi novels such as Consider Phlebas, The Use of Weapons and Excession. His latest, Look to Windward, recently knocked the latest Harry Potter book from the top of Amazon.Com.Uk’s best seller list. In Australia, however, his sci-fi is known to a handful of fans that wait for every new installment.

So what’s the big deal? Banks’s sci-fi is set in a galactic civilization called The Culture. Think of it as a far sexier version of Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets. Instead of the meddling, UFP do-gooders, The Culture is a polymorphously perverse collection of life forms, organic and artificial intelligences, who are as much concerned with having a good time as seeking out new life forms and civilizations. Banks is an ironic and acerbic writer who takes the most tired of all sci-fi sub-genres (the ‘space opera’) and gives it a contemporary twist.

I was surfing on the net one day about a year ago and discovered The Culture Mailing List Site. The idea was that you could talk with other Banks fans and enthuse collectively about the books. At least that was the idea. The List has taken on a life of its own. Although it’s certainly still connected to Banks, I can receive emails that cover anything from astrophysics, breaking news and the latest F1 racing positions to plots to overthrow the world, debates on gun control to priceless web addresses that keep me amused for hours. But more importantly, I feel as if I know people I’ve never laid eyes on or spoken to in ‘real life’.

Email lists, Bulletin Board Servers (BBS) and chat rooms are old news in the e-world. What you don’t expect from a group like the Culture List is the diversity among the members. Evan Vetere is 19 years old and attends Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. Vaughn Potter, who is 49, is a musician and mother who lives in Modesto, California and works as a supervising Legal Clerk/ Office manager for the Stanislaus County Public Defender. James ‘Jim’ Battista is 30 and teaches Political Science in Denton, Texas. Amanda Lowery is 32 and works for an I.T. company in Toronto, Canada. Adrian Hon, 17, is at Cambridge University in England, as is Richard Baker, 25, and is a physics research student. Emails arrive in my in-box from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the US, the UK, Canada, Norway and Germany.

[Adrian: I'm 18 now]

So what keeps the members mailing? “I think it's a sense of belonging to a community,” explains Adrian Hon. “Although it might take a long time to wade through 150 plus emails, there is always a few gems that'll make me laugh out loud or give me pause for thought. We all have a common interest in Banks's books and science fiction, but I find that the most interesting posts I read are about things I know absolutely nothing about.”

For a list that generates so much mail, is actually possible to learn anything from all the chat? “More than I ever thought I'd know about physics, space exploration, politics, computers and Nintendo,” says Amanda Lowery. “I've had books and films recommended to me that I'd never have found otherwise. I'm always starting conversations with my roommate with "One of the List people said...", because it seems like every day there's either an interesting new topic.”

It often feels like you know these people you spend so much time conversing with. The listees are mixed in their opinions on how well you can know someone on a list or BBS. Richard Baker thinks you can at least get a sense of personality. “I think it's actually much easier to get a sense of other listees personalities than it is to learn about their backgrounds,” he says. “Personality suffuses every single message whereas background information leaks out more slowly. And I really think that email does a pretty good job of conveying personality.”

Andrew Cunningham, who posts from Edinburgh in Scotland, isn’t so sure you can tell anything else. “Often there's no real impression of who the listees actually are or what they do,” he says. “I suspect that I'm much the same in many ways. I tend to avoid discussing my personal life on mailing lists, and so often all that comes across is a disconnected opinion without any sign of the experience that backs it up.”

The technology of the web sets up false distinctions between ‘real life’ and the net. What makes time on the Culture List so interesting are the encounters with people who resist catergorisation. Then again, maybe I’m being romantic. Vaughn Potter, who I often think of as a benign voice of sanity of the list, puts it in perspective. “The Culture List is a collection of very intelligent, curious, well-educated, middle-class white people,” she says. “Mostly younger IT related types with a few personalities that don't fit the general profile.”

I’ve often speculated on why so many people become addicted to talking to people they don’t know on the net. Is it a real addiction? “It's more that some of the people on the List are just as much my friends as my friends out here in ‘real life’ are,” observes Richard Baker. ”That probably sounds a little bit sad to people who haven't experienced internet-based friendships, but I don't think so at all.”

I once had the paranoid thought that I am actually an extension of the list rather than it simply being a reflection of my own interests. Like Neo in The Matrix, I’m wondering what the List really is. But of course, I imagined it. There is no list.

To join this list, send an email to culture@busstop.org with the word “subscribe” in the message field. Good luck.

Again, thanks to Andrew Frost for writing this article and letting me feature it here.

11:12 PM | permalink | discuss

This is just a prelude to a major spate of updates this evening, hopefully, ranging from a report of my trip to London, to why I really believe space exploration is worth it, and exactly what the nature of this mysterious Culture is.

I was walking around Cambridge today, wistfully thinking for the millionth time how much I'd like to have a nice digital camera at the time so I could take photos of the animals in the Zoology museum and of the various colleges at sunset. I already have a nice Canon Powershot S-10 in my sights. This camera is known as a 'prosumer' camera because it's halfway between a professional and consumer camera.

"What a funny word that is, pro-sumer," I thought to myself while peering into a highly expensive fudge shop. "Although the only other thing to call it would be con-fessional, and that's probably not as descriptive."

4:40 PM | permalink | discuss

Sunday, November 5

So there I was, trying vainly to catch up with the news when I spotted a LIVE NOW - Man in Space debate on the World Service on BBC News Online. When I realised that it really was live now, I switched on RealAudio to have a gander. As usual, the tired old informed points were being dragged out as well as a bit of hand-waving about Mars missions. My countenance darkened and I thought to myself, 'If I'm the Mars Society Chair of Youth Outreach, then by god, I'm doing to do some reaching out!', as my phone magically materialised in my hand.

With these phone-in things, you obviously get screened about what you want to talk about beforehand, but luckily the woman seemed very interested in my points about manned Mars missions costing at least half that of ISS and within a few minutes I was put on the show.

I can't recall it verbatim, but I fired off a few facts to clear the waters - the cost of a Mars mission, the fact that the ISS can't do much original research apart from that into gravity, and the scientific and public validity of a Mars mission. After all, the only way to look for life and water on Mars is by going there.

The producer then pointed out that robots were doing that. BAM! I thought - 'let's go in for the kill.' Of course robots are doing that, but they're painfully slow and they will continue to be so for a number of decades. Only a human can walk around, pick up rocks, turn them over and make quick decisions. And of course, then there's the whole fact that people are far more interested in Mars than they are in the ISS. Think about it - the first man in the ISS vs. the first man (or woman, eh?) on Mars. No contest.

At which point the producer started to nitpick about the entertainment aspects of a Mars mission - 'So, going to Mars would basically be entertainment?' I took a deep breath, and then explained that, no, it wouldn't, it's there first to be doing scientific research. Yes, it would be very interesting to the public, and we shouldn't dismiss its validity just because it's entertaining and interesting (unlike the ISS).

In hindsight, the very fact that the producer starting nitpicking about entertainment meant that he didn't really have much to say in opposition to my points about Mars vs. ISS and humans vs. robots which is naturally a Good Thing.

3:06 PM | permalink | discuss

Ever since I've been at Cambridge, I've found myself getting more and more out of touch with the outside world (i.e. outside Cambridge). Despite spending a fair amount of time every day reading through BBC News Online, Wired, Salon, ZDNet News, The Register and Slashdot, I still don't really know what's going on in the UK (conversely, I probably know far more about US politics than UK - but that's to be expected at a time like this).

Which to me really highlights two things. Firstly, there is simply no beating a physical newspaper for absorbing and reviewing large quantities of diverse information in the shortest amount of time. Those canny lads at IBM have realised this, and in their prototype flexible e-book reader they envisage a large newspaper-sized (possibly foldable) device with maybe 16 or 32 pages, as opposed to the usual one-page A4 type. Why? Because it's simply easier to scan across a large expanse of 'paper' than scroll down or press buttons. Perhaps this may change in the future as habits become different, but that is the future, after all.

The other thing is that it takes a certain amount of mental determination to keep up with the news. It's scarily easy to just let yourself go and not bother checking at all, since the issues rarely involve you yourself - and this goes the same for the tabloid 'newspapers' which, to be honest, don't really report news as much as gossip and stories. And I suspect that if you've been out of practice for a while, then it's even more difficult - imagine picking up a broadsheet newspaper for the first time today and trying to figure out who Al Gore was, let alone Vojislav Kostunica.

Maybe this is just because I'm in university and the only real source of news I have is through the Internet. If I wanted to read the newspaper, I'd have to walk about one minute to the common room - one minute too much, to my mind. If I wanted to watch the news on television, well, that'd take maybe three minutes.

I know that most of the broadsheets post their entire content on the Internet, but I think they know perfectly well that that isn't going to impact on their sales too much. I tried reading the Times on the Internet and found it was too difficult - it required far too much investment of time, clicking through the menus and trying to decide whether a news story's title was interesting enough for me to click on it and read.

Cognitive investment - that's what it is. And it's an investment, not an expense because I feel that no matter how abstract the news might seem sometimes, it does impact on you. We all make the news, and we can all change it, given enough determination and hard work. Anyway, I'll have more thoughts about the news later.

I became a little irritated - no, I became highly annoyed - last night. Normally I'm quite tolerant to the more 'upper-class' members of my college, but after hearing one berate a foreigner friend for not knowing what a poppy was ('We saved your little Belgian country!' - not that he was from Belgium) I went on tilt.

[Digression: I have the utmost respect for the veterans of WW1 and WW2 and what they did. However, I have no respect for some people - who were never in the war, and frankly have nothing to do with it whatsoever - who continue to use it to justify being rude to foreigners and acting superior.]

Sometimes I can't believe how various people got into Cambridge. I'll concede that they may have some vestiges of intelligence hidden away, but that's more than outweighed by obnoxiousness. If some drunk arsehole came banging on my door at 1:30AM shouting for me to get up, I wouldn't keep quiet (as an unfortunate individual did yesterday), I'd find a hefty piece of material and proceed to explain in no uncertain terms that I do not like my sleep being disturbed, thank you very much, and it'd be in the interests of your health to go away. Now.

Okay, maybe I should've expected something like this at the richest college in Cambridge, but I honestly thought that it couldn't be that bad. Of course, now that I've experienced a group of a dozen boarding-school boys getting drunk on cheese and wine, then proceeding to sing lustily along to 'Ode of Joy', I don't think it can get much worse.

[Another digression: I feel perfectly fine in writing this, for a few reasons. Firstly, I know for a fact that pretty much no-one in Cambridge reads my weblog, due to my Wondrous Computer Powers. Secondly, I can write what I want. Thirdly, I'm not dumb enough to write anything that will unjustifiably offend too much. Fourthly, even if I do, they can feel free to email me their response which I will happily post here. Not that I expect that to happen, due to points 1, 2 and 3.]

12:25 PM | permalink | discuss