Saturday, January 6

Interesting comments comparing this year with the movie 2001 - also, a graphic created by Michael 'Star Trek' Okuda featuring the ISS seen through the 'glass cockpit' Space Shuttle.

11:43 PM | permalink | discuss

I rarely bother linking to articles on the web that I feel defy any logic, but I've decided that it's worth it this one time. After seeing some kid earnestly write on a space discussion message board that we should all practice eugenics, that the empire of USA was going to fall, etc etc, I decided to follow the link he provided to check out the current state of tripe on the web.

And it was some prime-grade tripe, at that - a site about 'neo-eugenics'. Swallowing the rising bile, I checked out a recent article entitled Maladaptive Altruism: Western Culture in Decline. Now, I'll be the first to admit that I began reading it with some major prejudice in mind, but the sheer unthinking offensiveness of the author almost made me quit reading halfway through.

What irritates me about these articles is that they emit an aura of respectibility; they cite well known evolutionary biologists, they use impressive sounding terms such as evolutionary stable strategy and heterozygote advantage without fully understanding what they mean - or even worse, understanding but deliberately twisting the meaning.

Wild extrapolations abound; Dawkins' thoughts on kin selection are extrapolated so that it seems to the reader that Dawkins himself believes that races can parasitise off each other due to genetic differences (something which I'm sure Dawkins and any other informed biologist would find laughable for innumerable reasons including interbreeding and the problems of group selection). There is not a smidgeon of hard data, and all too often, correlation is understood to mean causation - a sadly ubiquitous fallacy.

I discovered something that neatly sums up the author's bias; his review of Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Guns, Germs and Steel. The author says of his review: "This short review of a national bestseller invalidates its arguments on the first page."

I'm not sure whether I should laugh or cry when someone says they can invalidate GGS in a single page, although it was a mixture of the two when I scrolled down past strawmen upon strawmen, quotes taken out of context and the author's strange obsession with Jews and intelligence.

To be honest, I really don't give a damn what the author believes, but I do care when kids are exposed to this sort of material since it reads so persuasively. It's probably worse than all the creationist guff out there, and you know how I feel about that.

Did someone say censorship? No, I don't believe that anything should be censored, but I do believe that there ought to be some sort of page annotation or rating system that can offer counterarguments and a wider spectrum of opinions.

8:00 PM | permalink | discuss

Considering that most people come here to waste a bit of time during work, here's a problem for you - The Missing Pound:

3 men go into a motel. The man behind the desk says the room is £30, so each man pays £10 and they go off to their room. A while later, the man behind the desk realises that the room was only £25, so he sends the bellboy to the 3 guys' room with £5. On the way the bellboy can't figure out how to split £5 evenly between 3 men, so he gives each man £1 and keeps the other £2 for himself (because he's an immoral, incompetent bastard who is destined to spend the rest of his life in the lower tiers of the service industry. Anyway...). This means that the 3 men each paid £9 for the room, which is a total of £27. Add on the £2 that the bellboy kept, and you get £29. So, where is the other pound?

Thanks to Rach for finding this problem, although I suspect she really should be revising for her exams instead of messing about with stuff like this. I also had to edit the grammar a bit and tidy it all up - is it me, or does no-one on the Internet know proper English? All answers and rants to go to the Vavatch Forum please. And this time, I actually remember what the answer is ('cos I had to figure it out myself).

Also - should I get rid of the discuss link at the bottom of each post if I've got the static forum? Seems like a needless duplication, but what do I know?

5:20 PM | permalink | discuss

There seems to be a fair amount of discussion going on on Vavatch, but the only problem is that due to posts disappearing off the bottom of the page, anything interesting dies out within a few days. So I've set up a new Vavatch Forum (you can see it on the sidebar) which is basically just one of the normal discuss links, but anchored in place. When it gets filled up, I'll create a new one - or maybe create separate forums for different topics.

12:18 AM | permalink | discuss

Friday, January 5

Apologies for the lack of updates recently - this time, it's not my fault. The system I use for Vavatch, Blogger, is currently swamped with users and is having a hard time keeping up. Wisely, they've set up a Paypal server fund so that people can donate money to speed up the service. To me, this is the Martian Way - give something away for free, but ask those who value it to donate a small sum. And, yes, I shall be donating to the server fund myself.

1:55 PM | permalink | discuss

Random ramble:

After reading the impressive short story The Seven Wonders of the Modern World, I've begun to wonder if there is any optimistic science fiction out there these days. While science fiction has grown and diversified since it appeared over a century ago, its output is always clearly a product of its times and perhaps what we choose to read is a telling symbol of what we yearn for.

A few years ago, I discovered the fantastically small science fiction section of my school library, occupying about half a shelf next to the horror stories. I'd already read and bought a fairly large number of SF novels from a varied lot of authors most of whom I can't recall any more. So when I borrowed the appropriately old and fraying anthologies they had there (the library didn't have any SF novels apart from those by Asimov and Clarke), I was getting my first experience of the golden age of (admittedly pulp) science fiction.

Most of them were classic space opera tales, or cheerful stories featuring ridiculously anthropomorphic aliens with the usual twist in the ending (strangely enough, the good old technology-packed propellorhead stories haven't changed a bit). However, it was clear that they were far more optimistic than the stuff we have nowadays - I can't say when they were written, but I'd guess from the thirties to the sixties.

I'd imagine that most of the sci-fi connoisieurs these days would deride these early stories, but I found them absolutely fascinating. It never struck me that despite their superficial differences, they were practically all variations on the theme of Galactic Conquest, or the Triumph of Capitalism, or Manifest Destiny. There wasn't much of the humanism we see in Kim Stanley Robinson or the insightful anarchocommunism/capitalism (take your pick) of Ken MacLeod.

But of course we all grow up, and so did I, and eventually I was introduced to the more 'advanced' fare of Banks, MacLeod, Robinson and Egan. Am I suggesting that these pulp SF stories are inferior? Can I even do that, with all the ridiculous po-mo crap that we have to deal with these days? No.

So with the incredible spectrum of science fiction we have now, do we attribute it to the multicultural and freethinking society we inhabit or is it because there are just more people writing?

As I searched around for reading material last night (I'd already re-read most of my books), I decided to read up apoptosis (programmed cell death) in a recent copy of Nature. After the first few paragraphs, I was feeling relatively pleased with myself in that I knew what they were talking about, until this sentence came up:

Finally, caspase mediated cleavage of PAK2, a member of the p21-activated kinase family, seems to mediate the active blebbing observed in apoptotic cells.
Active blebbing? I thought to myself. Giving my shoulders a metaphorical shrug, I soldiered determinedly onward for a couple more pages when I finally realised that I was way in over my head and really didn't know what a holoenzyme was (and wasn't in the mood to look it up in my reference book, it being located outside the reach of my bed).

1:00 PM | permalink | discuss

Thursday, January 4

On the 1st of January, Vavatch received 76 hits. On the 2nd of January, there were 147 hits. Am I to assume that most people reading Vavatch are in fact, at this very moment in time, at work?

12:47 PM | permalink | discuss

Quick links:

American businessman Dennis Tito is good to go - $20 million for a six day stay on the ISS. If only poor Tito had known that W H Smith were offering the same thing (well, nearly) for a mere £100,000...

Scientists stuck with geek image - what the hell do you expect when you 6 to 8 year olds? Science has never been the province of dare-devils, and it'll never be more interesting than the professions that attract kids so much, e.g. train drivers, footballers, firemen, pilots, astronauts, etc... If you asked them the same question 10 years on they'd sing a different tune.

But clearly, what the field of science in the UK requires is some devil-may-care rapscallion to trailblaze his (or her, let's be fair) way through the media and society. The first scientist media-star, if you will. And I know a perfect candidate...

I am, however, very sceptical about the government's designation of a new 'Year of Science' beginning in September. It seems that whenever something goes wrong, the government will give it a day, or a week, or a month, or even a year. Generally the result is some overpriced, uninspired marketing/publicity campaign that does nothing whatsoever. Such is bureaucracy.

It's been drawn to my attention that the Planetary Society is holding an international Mars art competition for 11 to 18 year olds (sounding suspiciously like one of the categories for Generation Mars, but I'll let it pass for now). Far be it for me to criticise every single competing competition against Generation Mars (who, me?) - after all, any publicity for space and Mars is good publicity - while I heartily agree with the sentiments behind this art competition, I can't help wondering exactly how much thought was put into planning it.

For instance, the top prize is a $100 gift certificate for Planetary Society merchandise. I hope this strikes you as being slightly stingy with money, because that's what it did to me. It's hardly the largest incentive you've ever seen, either. Also, it appears that there isn't going to be much 'real life' publicity for the competition. I personally don't think this is a good idea - it's hard enough finding these competitions on the web, let alone entering them, and these twin barriers aren't going to do much to attract kids who aren't already interested in space.

Which is the real problem. Space advocacy organisations have a real mental block in this regard - they spend most of their time talking, and when they're not talking, they're out preaching to the converted. But... what's the point? Almost everyone who's 'for' expanded space exploration isn't going to change their minds. They can't get any more pro-space. What space advocates should do is to kick up a real ruckuss and start shouting their mouths off everywhere - especially in the UK. God knows that that devil-man Kevin Warwick was spending most of his time on the UK Royal Institution Lectures saying that humans had no place on Mars and we should send robots instead.

In fact, why the hell did Kevin Warwick get to be on the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures? Anyone who watched them will have seen his incredibly stilted and boring performance (and anti-humans-in-space performance, I might add). More presentable and superior speakers such as Steve Jones would have been a far more appropriate choice.

12:49 AM | permalink | discuss

Wednesday, January 3

I hate computers. There is simply no other thing that exists that could burn away a good hour of my time without a rational explanation. There I was, trying to edit some photos I'd taken on New Year's Eve in Corel Photopaint 9, and the program stubbornly refused to load up the image, then fell over and died. I'd noticed this happening once or twice before, so I attributed it to the shoddy workmanship of the programmers, or perhaps my karma was adversely affecting the computer's circuitry.

After half a dozen more tries, it still didn't work. After three reinstalls (two of which were complete, clean reinstalls), it still didn't work. After pathetically loading up the program and fiddling about with various settings, it still didn't work. After trying to calm myself and improve my karma, it still didn't work (although I did feel marginally better about the situation). At that point, I decided to try and use Adobe Photoshop, and then realised that I couldn't be bothered learning yet another graphics interface and went back to try again on Photopaint (which, ha ha, still didn't work).

So I connect to the font of all knowledge, the Internet, and discover that in fact, the problem is because I needed to change my default printer. This struck me as a suitably unorthodox and thus correct solution - and yes, it worked after I changed my default printer. Exactly why this useful piece of information wasn't included in the help files or even (heaven forbid) added to the pop-up error dialog only serves to increase my righteous anger which will no doubt be taken out on the future programmers I know at university.

And so the moral of the story is: Adrian would've had the New Year's Eve photos up earlier if it wasn't for his dumb printer

3:05 PM | permalink | discuss

Some ambitions I'd like to achieve (which are actually achievable):

• Learn how to play, off by heart, La Campanella by Lizst (it can be done - I have witnessed it)

• Write a novel

• Complete the London Marathon in a decent time

• See a total solar eclipse which isn't being obscured by clouds

• See the Milky Way again

• Give away a million pounds of my own money to good causes

And of course there are some other ambitions which are far too personal to reveal here.

1:00 AM | permalink | discuss

Tuesday, January 2

Once again, my last post was gobbled up by the evil demons of the Internet in transit. Sigh. I wrote something about how a Star Trek-like body scanner has been developed - an ultra-detailed CT scanner, and how its detractors were misguided, but I'm not really in the mood to write all the stuff again.

I also mentioned that while thinking about my TED11 talk, I came to the realisation that I find my Mars activities far more interesting than online communities, and that I suspect the attendees will think similarly as well; they won't want to hear the old spiel about online communities yet again, not once most of the commercial ones have gone bust, and I'm hardly an expert in the subject. I can, however, claim that I'm an expert in youth-initated activism on the Internet... and what the hell, the guy from Microsoft two years ago spend twenty minutes talking about volcanoes, so there you go.

8:22 PM | permalink | discuss

Sunday, December 31

Two reviews today:


I had somewhat muted expectations of this movie; it seemed fairly obvious that there wouldn't be much action due to its director, despite the whole superhero setting. The background is that David Dunne (Bruce Willis) miraculously survives a train crash - in fact, he's the only survivor. After the crash, a comic book (expert? connoisseur?) called Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson) asks him how many times he's been sick in his life. What a surprise, it's none. Elijah also has brittle-bone syndrome, so we have a study of opposites here since David is apparently 'unbreakable'.

Continuing on from this, there are very few hijinks; this isn't the X-Men, this is about a hypothetical real man who, to his reluctance, discovers that he has unusual properties. Bruce Willis plays his 'drab, stooped old man' role to perfection here, and there's an excellent set of scenes where he stands in a crowd, bewildered and confused as to what he should do confronted with so many seemingly normal people who've committed crimes.

Sitting about three rows from the screen, I found it pretty difficult to take in the whole picture, and the director's roving camera angles only made me more queasy. This won't be a problem if you arrived at the cinema on time and thus got the good seats, but you'll still notice the unique camera angles and the incessant, unstopping imagery - mirrors, opposites, inversions. Something that got on my nerves was the occasional analysis of comic book drawings; even with Samuel L. Jackson's impressive acting they came out rather two-dimensional and irritatingly obvious.

So, what about the ending? As most of you know, Shymalan, the director, was also responsible for the Sixth Sense. Do we get the same kind of twist here? In a way. Since you know there's a twist, about halfway through the movie your brain will go into overdrive trying to work out all the possibilities for surprise endings. I'll have to admit that I didn't predict exactly what would happen at the end (suffice to say that it creeps up on you when you think the movie should go on for at least another half hour) but I had an idea.

Is it worth seeing? Yes, and I think it's worth watching twice so you can pick up the extra details - I plan on watching it again on DVD, when it's released. There are some wonderful scenes and set pieces, and the soundtrack complements the visuals perfectly. It's not the best movie you'll see, but it's definitely interesting.

White Mars by Brian Aldiss and Roger Penrose

You'll be surprised to hear that I don't read every single Mars novel that's released. The reason is because they're almost all universally dire; there's something about the red planet that makes authors fall into their worst habits and most stilted clichés, and the recent movies have not helped at all. Granted, Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars trilogy is still excellent, but it's the exception to the rule.

White Mars, in fact, reads almost identically to the sections in the Red Mars trilogy where the story is concerned with the development of a new society. This might strike you as being a little facetious when the blurb on White Mars is 'How can we achieve a better world?' but it's true, the tone and pace will remind you of the whole Dorsa Brevia conference in Green Mars, and the Constitutional Congress in Blue Mars.

I'm perhaps alone in the entire world in those who actually enjoyed reading Blue Mars (frequent complaints are that people can't find the will to finish it), so that might mean I'm the only person who enjoyed White Mars, which is, after all, basically an essay about creating a new society on Mars transposed into a fictional enviroment where the measures described in the essay are put into practice.

At least, that's what I thought at the start of the novel. Further on, it starts going a little bit... crazy... due to the influence of that cad, Roger Penrose. I should've seen it coming - Roger Penrose is well known for his views on the quantum basis of consciousness and all sorts of cutting edge fringe biology and physics. As a result, you can see his ideas cropping up with alarming regularity. Sure, they're good and interesting ideas, but they're not really developed to their full extent - they serve more as conversational pieces between the protagonists rather than concepts that are explored in depth.

However, that's only a minor part of the novel. The real meat is worth reading (if you happen to be like me).

It seems that most authors agree on one necessary prerequisite of creating a new society - it has to be done in relative isolation. In today's world, you can't find that isolation on Earth or even in Earth orbit. You'd have to do it where there's a significant communications time-lag to avoid the contamination of 'traditional' memes, and even better, you'd have to do it with absolutely no communication from Earth. Which is what Brian Aldiss does in White Mars; he gets together a few thousand well-educated young people from across Earth (YEAs - Young Enlightened Adults) together with a liberal sprinkling of DOPs - Distinguished Older Persons, cuts them off from Earth and lets the magic grow.

To be honest, I found the formative stages of this new Mars society to be a little stilted. He says 'Most Martians had discarded their gods along with the terrestrial worship of money. They were thus able to develop a religious sense of life, unwarped by any paternalistic equations.' I find this a little hard to believe. Even in Cambridge, supposedly the home of some of the most enlightened people in the world, I see religion confronting me at every turn (this isn't a bad thing, it's merely a statement of fact). Fortunately, Aldiss doesn't dismiss the religion aspect entirely and it does return, albeit much later, in the novel.

As you'd expect in a novel exploring the possibilities of a utopian society, there's a lot of discussion, a lot of history and a fair bit of postulation on the basis of money in a society, transparency, education and crime. While all of this is very enjoyable, Aldiss seems to invent new characters for every different political or cultural persuasion. Soon enough, you begin to lose track.

White Mars is a particularly subdued and graceful novel, conducting all conversations and observations in civilised neutrality. This continues for practically the entire length of the novel until the inevitable conclusion and a short, worthwhile denouement. It also presents a convincing argument for the non-terraformation of Mars (better than those presented by Kim Stanley Robinson, at least). As such, it joins the few Mars novels that are worth buying (Red Mars trilogy and Voyage, the latter of which isn't even strictly a Mars novel).

1:17 PM | permalink | discuss