Saturday, December 23

Some wonderful, timely news! Only two days before Christmas (and six hours after I get to sleep after a very long evening out), I receive a promisingly weighty envelope from PPARC (Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council). And yes, Generation Mars now has an extra 2000 in funding and arguably just as important, the backing of an extremely reputable and discriminating government funding body.

True, it wasn't as much money as I'd asked for in the application, but what the hell, I'm happy enough. Anyway, only 57% of the applicants were successful, and we were the only astronomical society among them. Yay!

I've just put up a new Photo Gallery index page, along with last night's photos.

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Friday, December 22

Bizarre moment: Seeing Peter Ustinov on the Muppet Show last night...

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Updates to Vavatch are probably going to be intermittent over the next week - I celebrate Christmas just like the rest of you, you know. I've been having some good responses with the whole virtual community saga I've mentioned before, through a virtual community expert I met from the WELL - clearly the subscription to join the WELL was worth it.

I've been feeling a bit strange recently. Not tired, just not active. I don't feel like I have anything to say at the moment. A lot of my projects are currently in limbo; I could hear about the GenMars grant any day now; I'm still waiting to hear back from NASA about the GenMarsMaps proposal; my TED11 talk is still in progress.

It's not as if I'm not doing anything - pretty much the opposite. And it's not as if they're not exciting. The only problem is that there's been no sense of any impending conclusion. Normally the things I work on have real, tangible results - I might be able to see the website expanding with every page I add, or the trebuchet we're constructing. This... well, no, I can't see the results of what I'm doing yet.

The truth is, it's inevitable this is going to happen simply because with the scale of the stuff I'm doing now, I need much more set-up time than before. So, I hope that the pay-off will reflect what I have to put in. We'll see, anyway.

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Wednesday, December 20

Unfortunately, due to spending more time than is strictly healthy playing table football and throwing darts at an 'Executive Decision-maker' last night at a friend's house, I wasn't able to see Five Steps to Tyranny - however, I did get a friend to tape it, so hopefully I'll have more cogent thoughts about the subject soon.

Photos from Friday's post-university reunion

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It's very enlightening to actually watch video feeds of Parliamentary debates on TV, via BBC Parliament. Strangely enough, the debate on stem cell research was very civilised, and I saw merely one instance of complete dumb-assedness (from a completely misinformed anti-cloning MP - even though the debate had nothing at all to do with cloning). There was a particularly well made speech by Health Minister Yvette Cooper that made me regain a fragment of faith in our elected officials - I'm going to try and obtain the transcript of the speech.

In the end, reason prevailed and the vote went ahead with a two-thirds majority to extend embryo research.

While watching children's BBC (my excuse: I'd spent several hours reading back issues of Nature and revising my notes, so I needed some entertainment that required the use of no brain matter), I came across an extremely good factual programme called Why 5. It's a blatant rip-off of the more well-known Discovery series, Connections, but it's several hundred times more interesting and accessible to younger viewers. I myself was astounded by the way it not only attempted but succeeded in explaining how sextants work, the movement of the stars and the whole wavelength idea of light. This should be compulsory viewing for kids, I feel.

Mind you, considering that the programme is based on links between everyday five objects, I found some to be fairly tenuous, such as the one connecting lemons and cannons. You can use lemons to generate electricity by using zinc and copper, but you'd need a really big lemon to generate much electricity.

(This is where it gets wobbly)

Using genetic engineering to fire genetic material into lemon nuclei, you can 'produce really huge lemons' that would be able to generate all this electricity. And firing genetic material into nuclei is clearly highly related to the firing of cannonballs (I think, but I'm not sure, that the process is termed 'shotgun'). Well, anyway, apart from the rather desperate connections the science and presentation is impeccable.

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Tuesday, December 19

Some things that have happened in the news that may have escaped your attention:

Vote to decide future of cell science: I'm not entirely sure what I think of this, but there's no doubt that this is an extremely important vote - if therapeutic cloning gets the go-ahead, as it most probably will, this means that we'll be able to use stem cells to cure a whole range of previously untreatable illnesses; stem cells can become any human tissue, so you could grow a new anything. Unfortunately, these stem cells come from human embryos, and there's the rub.

However, surprisingly, the loudest objections don't come from the use of human embryos, but the fact that this bill could be the 'slippery slope' going to full human cloning. I have two problems with this conception. Firstly, whenever I hear the term 'slippery slope', I also hear the cliche 'grasping at straws.' Secondly, what is the big deal about human cloning? Twins are genetically identical, and no-one has any problems with them. And do we seriously think that someone will successfully clone themselves dozens or hundreds of times, a la sci-fi B-movies?

I read in an article in The Times today that the debate was so heated that there were comparisons with Nazism. As any Internet veteran knows, once there's a mention of that word, all reasonable discourse and objectivism goes completely out of the window. However, I'm hardly surprised that our 'learned Members of Parliament' resorted to such rash comments. Perhaps they could do with reading a few pointers online about the arts of civilised debate.

Five Steps to Tyranny: This is a programme that I urge all UKers to watch - BBC2, 9PM tonight. It describes exactly how easy it is for an average person to commit acts of atrocity - perhaps through a fear of authority, or in other circumstances a wiping out of all moral responsibility because 'I was ordered to do it'. I'll have more comments on this later.

Airbus set to launch superjumbo: At last, a new passenger plane that can carry a hell of a lot more passengers than the 747. But will it be any cheaper to fly anywhere? Will it hell. Instead of putting more seats in the plane, they're putting 'gyms, shops and bars'. Sigh.

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Sunday, December 17

I caught an episode of one of my favourite TV shows (i.e. one of the only TV shows I watch any more), Scrapheap Challenge. Never heard of it? That's probably because you're American, and you know of it as Junkyard Wars. I'm not quite clear on the rationale behind the distinction between these two names, but I found it pretty amusing to watch the show bearing in mind that it was filmed in mind for two different audiences; not only were there two main presenters (Brit and Yank, obviously), but two co-presenters and two separate banners and logos dotted around the construction area.

Surprisingly, the formula didn't irritate me at all - even when the Yanks won the series I wasn't too bothered. My only regret about the series is that I much preferred the second series in which the teams were static and you got to know them much better. Alas, Scrapheap Challenge was the darling of the Channel 4, destined for better things and bigger heaps of scrap, so the old teams had to go.

Still, it's far better than most other tripe on TV so if you're in America, check it out.

(Aside: By the way, it appears that Scrapheap Challenge is a very 'public-friendly' website and show - its website has a good deal of inside information and has links to outside fan sites. I like the way they ask people for suggestions on how to make a teenager's version of the show work, very inclusive. A good example to all TV websites)

I have an 'event horizon' theory about conversations. Tonight, after some of my friends were complaining that I didn't update my weblog enough (you know who you are!), the room went silent and people gazed into their glasses of wine or randomly around the walls. Suddenly, someone spoke up and mentioned something about computers. From then on, four of the five relatively computer-literate/interested people in the room began talking animatedly about the values of Linux, how Windows could be emulated on it, various HTML editing methods and so on ad infinitum, while the fifth person tolerated this all with admittedly good grace.

Computers or the Internet are possibly the world's greatest conversation topics, if only because the people who have knowledge of them can always use them as a fallback. Got nothing to talk about? Don't want to accidently mention someone's ex? Friend's relative just died? Why not talk about Linux, or writing web pages?

However, this doesn't come without its pitfalls. If the people in the room are too computer literate (e.g. Cambridge CompScis - that's Computer Scientists) then you get sucked into the black hole of quantum computing, doing AI in Pascal, why SETI is a bad thing and the unglamourous nature of Internet coders, and before you know it, four hours have passed, it's in the wee hours of the morning and you still haven't written that essay which needs to be in in roughly minus 12 hours time.

Caveat: I've found that, unsurprisingly, this can be averted with the judicious use of alcohol and at least one non-scientist in the room.

Watched Three Kings today on DVD - very funny and refreshingly original action movie. Not quite as blood-splattered as some might have you believe. Three Kings tends to be a movie that you either love or hate, and I opt for the former.

11:49 PM | permalink | discuss