Friday, December 1

That's it. I've lost all confidence in the ability of Slashdot to moderate postings. Slashdot recently ran a story about how testing is being done for life on Mars. All very well and good. However, when I look at the high-rated posts, all I see are so-called 'funny' posts and even worse, under-researched handwaving. I keep on seeing woefully posts about the science of assymetric sugars (the authors of which don't seem to appreciate the need for actual scientific knowledge rather than the random use of long words), and even when an informed person makes a rebuttal, the rebuttal is invariably scored too low to register on anyone's browser.

The fact is, the entire basis of Slashdot's rating system is flawed - the blind leading the blind, as it were. Coupled together with how the same old arguments are covered ad infinitum for every possible topic, and you realise that the discussion forums of Slashdot are so weighed down with noise and junk - and that many of the good posts are ironically a victim of the ratings system - that the forums are not worth the time spent reading them.

This only highlights to me the real value of areas such as the WELL, which although require subscription fees manage to keep almost zero junk or noise in topics. I am also a firm believer in the need for constant Internet identities - so that you can permanently ignore known trouble-makers. The only reason I don't appreciate the WELL more is because I'm already used to it...

Over 34 million people worldwide have AIDS. Evolutionary biologist Steve Jones believes that 1% - 60 million - of the world's population is infected with HIV. Practically every single one of those 60 million will die within 10 years. It's your responsibility to find out more, with World AIDS Day.

11:31 PM | permalink | discuss

It should have been a straightforward event - all I wanted to do was to buy a wallet to replace my original one that'd disintegrated, and get one present. You'd think that it'd be easy. Of course not. Instead, I ended up going around with an ever-increasing number of people and at one point found myself playing a game of Laserquest (okay, it's not as if I was dragged into it kicking and screaming, but there you go).

And how many places do you think would sell good wallets? Enough to entertain a group of people for a good hour, it's apparent, and naturally, the first shop we went to (and spent ten minutes discussing the relative merits of all the pockets, build quality, whether zips were entirely necessary and generally messing up their display stand) turned out to be the shop we returned to after looking at several others. Incidentally, in the intervening time the shop assistants had diligently rearranged all the wallets. We decided to be kind, and mess them up all over again; after all, they'd be out of the job if it weren't for people like us.

The moral of the story: Students can think up an infinite number of ways to waste time, even more than when they've got work to do, one of which includes writing entries for weblogs like this.

[NB: Don't worry, I'm going to make a much more cogent post later tonight]

8:05 PM | permalink | discuss

Thursday, November 30

I've finally succumbed to the fatal lure of the WELL, the Internet's most famous online community. I normally wouldn't have joined up, but a friend told me about a special offer ($4 subscription for two months) which seemed eminently reasonable to me (it usually costs $10 a month). This has occurred at an impossibly fortuitous time, i.e. just when term has finished at Cambridge.

The WELL is an interesting place. After visiting a few conferences and reading through the messages, it wasn't quite the hive of ultra-intelligent activity I'd once thought it might be (high expectations? Don't be silly...). However, I've already managed to find a virtual communities conference and am now chatting away with the best of them about setting up pro-active communities. It's a very friendly community, the WELL, and remarkably civil - unsurprising, since you can't afford to be uncivil if you're paying $10 a month. As a result, it has a very high signal to noise ratio (no junk, no silly posts).

It's pleasing that I can finally find a group of individuals who know their stuff (and are writing books for MIT Press) about online communities, and who'll ask me challenging questions about exactly what I'm trying to achieve - while helping, of course. True, I could probably find this elsewhere on the Internet, but not easily and not in one place.

5:19 PM | permalink | discuss

Wednesday, November 29

One of my life goals was fulfilled today - someone cited something that I'd written as ammunition against creationists on the talk.origins newsgroups (an article about Anthropic Design on Astrobiology: The Living Universe). I'm still pleased about the fact that people continue to find the site useful and recommend it to friends.

Here's an interesting (yet to my mind overly simplistic and biased) opinion on how the American elections were perfect, in that they ended with a near-tie. There are also some thoughtful responses to the article.

On the same site (Edge.org) is an interview with Paul Davies about time travel. Well worth reading - it covers all the bases and talks about the possibilities of time travel, although it doesn't go into much detail.

12:30 PM | permalink | discuss

Tuesday, November 28

I thought I might spend a bit of time replying to some of the comments people have made on Vavatch with the new discuss feature in this post (considering it's been a bit of a slow day today).

About BT's Technology Timeline: I'd agree that it's very difficult to talk about how technology will affect our future society. It seems to me that there are two difficulties. At the moment, we have a relatively good (albeit general) idea of what technologies we can expect within the next ten or twenty years - we know we can expect holographic displays, high bandwidth always-on 'personal communicators', ridiculously powerful computers and maybe rudimental nanoprobes floating around in our bloodstream. We do not, however, know exactly how these technologies will be applied.

A good example would be Napster; most Internet-savvy people wouldn't have been surprised to hear that we would be downloading music via the web, but they would (possibly) be surprised as to how it was set up (peer to peer) and the sheer volume of users. I have absolutely no specific idea what advances such as active contact lenses and retinal projects will do to impact on our society (the latter is already in alpha-test stage), but I do know that they will profoundly change how we live. The same applies to the next-generation of mobile phones that will be able to pinpoint your location to within metres - imagine being able to tell your friends exactly where you our. It'll save hours on Saturday nights alone!

Webloggers helping charities: It is good to hear that people like Nico are helping charities. Unfortunately, not many others are (including me, unless I count Generation Mars, and I don't, considering that that's my project anyway). I'm certain that web designers would be happy to do this, but to get any significant number to sign up would require a good degree of organisation by someone who is willing to create a list of charities who are prepared to let designers have a certain amount of creative license. As we all know, designers don't like being told, 'Could you use loads of fonts on that page?' or 'I think that animated button links are great!'. But let designers run (relatively) free on site design and they'll be grateful - they'll even do it for free!

National Geographic Mars books: Unfortunately, Generation Mars is only open to 11-18 year olds :) So I'm assuming that pretty much excludes everyone here. I'm not sure what I think of the Mars Society rover design projects. I suppose it's a good idea, and it's definitely getting us a lot of publicity, but I can't seem to summon up a great deal of enthusiasm for it.

Speaking of Generation Mars (as I always do), I just managed to sign up Dr. Geoffrey Landis to become our latest judge. I was pretty pleased about this, since he's almost the ideal guy for the job; he's a researcher at NASA working on Mars in-situ propellant production techniques, he's won the Hugo and Nebula SF awards and his latest book is purportedly the most realistic depiction of a manned Mars mission in science fiction. I would make a link to his most powerful story, Winter Fire, except that it's been taken off the web and I wouldn't feel right if I uploaded the copy that I've got saved on my computer.

By a twist of fate, Geoffrey Landis' wife, Mary Turzillo, is also a well-known science fiction writer who has recently published stories about Mars. And even more twistier, she was going to speak at the Mars Society convention in the summer at exactly the same time as I was, but on a different track. Luckily for us, she didn't turn up, because if she did we probably wouldn't have had much of an audience.

5:31 PM | permalink | discuss

Sunday, November 26

For the past two and a half days, I've read the 1200+ page long trilogy of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy; a trilogy aimed at children, although you'd hardly be able to tell it. In an interview, Pullman describes the trilogy most accurately, I think - it's not your typical orcs and elves fantasy, but stark realism.

His Dark Materials is a story set in three parallel universes out of an infinite number, and tells the tale of a boy and a girl who ultimately are fighting to destroy religion (although they don't know it). Pullman is perhaps the first children's author with the guts to be anti-Christian, and it's startling that he hasn't received the full force of fury from the countless tabloids in the UK - but it's only a matter of time. The Christian Herald has already proclaimed that the trilogy is "truly the stuff of nightmares”. Huzzah for Pullman!

Yes, I can hear you thinking that, 'If it's a children's book, that's very nice but I have some perfectly good grown up books to read, so I'll be shutting off my brain now.'

Pullman's trilogy might be aimed at adults, but I certainly don't pretend to understand all of it. The first novel, Northern Lights, is fairly straightforward with only one point of view. That's not saying it's a simple book; readers will be able to appreciate the little references to quantum mechanics, probability theory, the many-worlds hypothesis and high energy physics that he manages to weave in (I certainly did) - naturally they're not essential to understand the novel, but they do make it more appealing to older readers.

The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass explode into an orgy of complex theological debate while introducing more interesting facts such as the nature of consciousness and entangled particles, as well as a short section on evolution. I'm told that there are countless referencess to Blake, Paradise Lost and more - not that I would know.

To be balanced, Pullman does paint a rather dark view of Christianity, which has attracted the attention of several critics, but frankly I don't see anyone complaining about the tens of thousands of children's books that continually extol the virtue of being a Good Christian. Pullman earns my respect for writing this trilogy, even if he is as an evangelical atheist as Dawkins. And of course he's not entirely critical of Christianity (although you'll have to wait to get to the last book to pick up on that).

Naturally, comparisons are going to be made with the Harry Potter novels. Since I haven't read them, I'm not prepared to judge but I probably will pick them up from a library or a friend sooner or later, although I'm worried that I'll be extremely biased against them. It's very hard for me to take Harry Potter seriously, what with all the cuddly-sounding names like Mugwumps or nonsense like that. Of course they're good novels, or else they wouldn't sell so well, but I sorely doubt that they're as ground-breaking or thought-provoking as His Dark Materials (perhaps I will be proved wrong - and if I am, that's good, because it means there are four more excellent novels for me to read). At a Salon Table Talk discussion on Harry Potter, someone remarked:

"...It's sort of the difference between a gourmet meal (Pullman) and a good hamburger and fries (Potter). I guess lately I haven't been in the mood for hamburger.
My sentiments exactly.

I mentioned on the Culture discussion list that His Dark Materials has been sadly overlooked not only because it's a 'kids book' but also because many would think that it simply isn't suitable for kids. Leaving apart all criticisms of the anti-religion stance taken in the trilogy, there are some particularly bloody scenes and mature events going on (but no sex, if that's what you're worried about). I would have been overjoyed to read this trilogy when I was younger, when it might have made more of an impact on me, and I would have no qualms in recommending to any interested 11+ year old. They might be kids, but they're human beings, for god's sake, and they have to grow up sometime and learn about the world. Better they do it with a good book rather than from the television or their equally mis-informed peer-group.

(I'm not excluding films because the rights to His Dark Materials have already been bought. Let's hope they do a good job. I wonder what rating it'll get...)

Finally, I have to include this wonderful (and luckily very atypical) quote I read at Amazon's reader reviews of the final book (The Amber Spyglass):

"Sad to say, The Amber Spyglass is spoiled by its didacticism, which seeks to convince the audience that Christianity is evil. Those looking for confimation of a nihilistic and narcissistic approach to life will find much to revel in, but those who have experienced the ineffable joy of God's love will find nothing here except an ego in spiritual arrest.
Regular readers of Vavatch will be in no doubt as to my reaction to that sort of opinion.

Some interviews of Philip Pullman: Books Unlimited, The New York Times and The Times.

4:55 PM | permalink | discuss