Saturday, March 10

Lately I haven't been reading very many new (non-study related) books, so when I got the opportunity to read Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds, it pretty much ate up about 8 to 10 hours of my life which precluded me from engaging in any non-critical activities such as updating my weblog, etc etc. But you'll be pleased to hear that I'll be reviewing Revelation Space later on this weekend.

We've just had student union elections in Cambridge, and it's struck me, as always, how little everyone including myself know about the election candidates. Due to a ridiculous one-week long campaigning season and the fact that the way you heard about the candidates was from the information-free posters that dotted every uncovered wall, the thing that swung the election was a ringing endorsement for one candidate by the most popular Cambridge student newspaper, Varsity. Never mind the fact that general elections aren't much better, or that the other election candidates weren't very appealing (one offered free TV licenses for all students - 'nuff said), I just think that it could have been done much better. And as per, I think that the Internet could have been the thing that would have made it better.

Bear with me here. The only real information resource that everyone in the university can be counted on to have access to, and use on a near-daily basis are the computers and Internet access, if only to check email (in fact, if you don't, you get into big trouble for missing emails from your tutor and supervisors). Yes, people do visit the halls for food and the mail rooms to pick up deliveries, but the difficulty in canvassing all these people-dense places coupled with the way you can't fit much information on an A4 poster means that any traditional method of campaigning is unlikely to do anything apart from putting your name in people's faces.

(True, I will admit that that's all they really want to do. But it's not what should be done.)

So. In order to increase information dissemination and have an informed electorate (you'd think that Cambridge University of all places would fulfil this better than most, but then you'd think wrong), you'd set up an election website on the Internet and publicise this fact with, yes, posters, but also with one or two emails to all students.

The website could be done quite easily - I could actually do it myself in a weekend. It'd be a hectic weekend, but I'd get it done - graphics, messageboards and weblogs allowing even the most technology-illiterate candidates to participate in online debates. It would allow a large space for all candidates to place detailed manifestos and information, and for both candidates and students to debate the issues. Online voting wouldn't be inconceivable (especially due to the unique email identifiers we all have in the university), or at least polling. Given a little more work, this website could also expand to include all issues concerning the election of officials - and most importantly, it would be participatory.

I personally think that the election of a Student Union President is an important thing; they have the potential to effect a lot of change, if they could be so inclined (or rather, bothered).

Continuing my not-so-humble schemes, we also need impartial and structured forums for debate for the general election, or at least for national/international issues. I came up with an idea for a so-called 'Voting Index' website which would be based around allowing visitors to vote on a range of topics shown at the website. These votes might be topical, but they'd all include essays or links to resources on the web as well as moderated and unmoderated messageboard for discussion and free debate.

This would require a bit more work in order to tie everything together and get it completely automated (the student election website could, to an extent, be done by hand) but no more than a week's worth, I'm told.

It never fails to boggle my mind how little work these things would take to implement. I'll admit that the Voter Index project is a much riskier affair (i.e. no-one might visit it), but not only does the Student Union election idea fulfil a specific and time-limited purpose, it also would take perhaps 15 to 20 man-hours to complete.

Not, of course, that I'm volunteering to do such a thing. I'd happily work with such a project but I simply don't have the time to take anything much more on, what with the work I'm doing with the Mars Society UK and GenMars (which incidentally is partly based around what I've been talking about here, but more about that later).

2:54 PM | permalink | discuss

Thursday, March 8

Oh dear. It turns out that I have another email address now, adrian@(nospam)marssociety.org.uk (a forwarding address). That's in addition to adrian@(nospam)vavatch.co.uk (another permanent forwarding address), adrian@(nospam)genmars.com ('professional' email address), adrian@(nospam)gen-mars.freeserve.co.uk (doubtful whether this works any more), ah328@(nospam)cam.ac.uk (current central email address) and adrianhon@(nospam)yahoo.com (or is it co.uk? It's the email address I use to register services with so it doesn't clog up my regular address with spam).

(I put 'nospam' in them because I don't want them to be added to lists of email addresses for spam mailers by programs that crawl the web for these sort of things)

That's six email addresses, as far as I can see. A bit silly, but as long as I can keep them all pointing to a single address I should be okay.

I think it's time for another biological story. Are you all sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin.

You often see stories in the media about beached whales, although they generally don't elaborate about why this happens or what damage this does to the whales, apart from saying that it's a 'bad thing'. Well, it is. Whales normally swim around in groups of about 150 to 200, although they can rise to 1000 in some circumstances. Every so often, these groups will for some reason end up on a beach and won't be able to get back into the water - being out of the water does terminal damage to their internal organs and so when you see all these volunteers gallantly hauling them back into the water, it isn't for the good of the whales, it's just to make sure that they don't die on their beaches.

The question is, why do they get there in the first place? Before answering that, let me digress for a few sentences.

There are some species of bacteria that will, when you place a magnet underneath a part of their petri dish, suddenly swim over to where the magnet is. It's believed that birds might have a sense of magnetic fields and so that would explain how they knew where to migrate. In fact, cells with iron particles that can orientate themselves relative to the magnetic field of Earth have been found in some birds.

So, you guessed it, some people believe that whales navigate using Earth's magnetic fields. And the reason why this is related to why they beach themselves is because a correlation between the beaching sites and deposits of iron ore have been discovered; so in the same way that a magnet threw off the bacteria, these iron ore deposits alter the local magnetic field so that the whales think they're going in the right direction, following the field lines but instead they end up on the beach.

Why do I know this? It takes statistics to determine whether there is a significant (i.e. not random) correlation between beaching sites and iron ore deposits. We cover statistics in Quantitative Biology lectures, and this is what the lecturer told us today. Incroyable!

6:18 PM | permalink | discuss

Wednesday, March 7

At the Mars Society UK meeting I went to during the week, a few nice inside stories were mentioned that I think are worth passing on here. You should all be aware of what the Mars Society is (you read Vavatch, after all), and so you'd understand why we decided two years ago to start construction of a Mars Analogue/Arctic Research Station in conjunction with NASA to test out procedures, logistics, equipment and so on that would be used on a real humans to Mars mission. The FMARS, as it is called, is fully complete now and there are plans to build several more around the world, but as always the most interesting stories come from its development.

Back when the decision was made to go ahead with fundraising, the Mars Society didn't really have that much cash which clearly is a bad thing if you want to produce a $1.2 million research station. So the founder of the Society, Robert Zubrin, went and contacted Steve Kirsch, the founder of Infoseek. Steve has long been interested in projects like Spaceguard that are aimed at finding all Near Earth Objects - i.e. asteroids that might hit us, and he's funded Spaceguard with some of his hundreds of millions (or billions, even) of money.

Robert managed to convince Steve that while Spaceguard was a very admirable thing to fund, perhaps he might consider another similar project that had equally good aims - the FMARS station. Steve hmmed and hahed, and said that he agreed it was a good idea, and how much money did the Society want? Robert replied, "One hundred thousand dollars," and Steve hmmed and hahed a bit more and said that that was rather more than he'd been thinking of and wouldn't ten thousand dollars be acceptable?

Of course ten thousand dollars would not be acceptable, but then Steve came up with a solution. He said, "If you and your Society claim to have all these famous contacts, then I'll do you a deal. When I meet Buzz Aldrin, I'll give you your one hundred thousand dollars."

(In case any of you cave-dwellers don't know who Buzz Aldrin is, he was the second man on the Moon. But I didn't need to tell you that, did I?)

A couple of months later, Robert rang up Steve and asked him where he'd be in a couple of days. Steve said he'd be in the office, and why was he asking? Well, it couldn't be anything else but Robert bringing along the man himself, Buzz Aldrin. And surely enough, on that day Robert walked into Steve's office and said, "Steve Kirch, Buzz Aldrin. Buzz Aldrin, Steve Kirsch. Steve Kirsch, one hundred thousand dollars."

Now, you might be thinking to yourself that this is just another 'nice' story which is probably not true. And that's what my source thought as well, since he'd first heard the story of Robert himself - that is, after Robert had had a few glasses of wine. The thing is, it turns out that Buzz Aldrin (an acquaintance of my source) independently confirmed the story. So there you go, things like this really do happen in real life.

(Apparently after Robert had said this, Steve claimed that he'd only promised ten thousand dollars but Robert didn't stand for any nonsense and we eventually got the cash.)

11:24 AM | permalink | discuss

Tuesday, March 6

I saw a wonderful video clip today in one of my lectures about how people are attempting to raise the numbers of the whooping cranes; across the world I think there are only a few hundred of these birds left.

Like most birds, the whooping cranes have a short time after its birth in which they are in an 'imprinting period'. During this time, any large moving object that the chick sees will from then on be recognised as its mother, and the chick will follow that object around wherever it goes. This object doesn't have to look like its 'real' mother, it could be a moving boot or even a human. Of course, this is rarely a problem since the first thing a newly hatched chick will see is going to be its mother anyway.

However, with an endangered species that has to be helped back up to its old levels by humans, this isn't the case as the mother is usually kept busy producing more eggs. Without the mother, the human keepers have to construct models of the adult birds so that the chicks not only have a mental picture of their mother being of the correct species, but they will also 'recognise' which species they are - e.g. if they 'recognised' their mother to be a human because it was the first thing they saw and the thing that fed and took care of them, they would attempt to mate with humans when they grow to be adults because they think they are humans themselves. When you're trying to raise their numbers, an incorrect self-species identification isn't a good thing.

All of this produced rather amusing scenes of people dressed up as the cranes with arms as their beaks feeding and tending to the birds (the reasoning being that they should see humans as little as possible).

Unfortunately, another problem is that the cranes have to be taught how to fly, and there aren't any adult birds around to teach them how. We were first treated to these dressed-up humans running around fields flapping their arms in an attempt to demonstrate to the cranes how they should fly, with moderate success - they were nearly flying. The video then cut to a farmer in Idaho who was attempting to raise a few dozen of the cranes himself. He didn't take the same approach as the initial team I've talked about - instead, he raised the cranes by hand but kept them in groups so hopefully they would recognise their own species.

You'll realise that his raising the cranes would make them think he was their mother and so follow him around everywhere. With respect to teaching them how to fly, this wasn't such a bad thing, since he managed to teach them successfully by driving a small jeep around his farm fast enough so they have to learn to fly to keep up with him.

David Attenborough (for this was his programme) remarked that this guy wouldn't be able to look after them forever - the cranes would eventually fly south for the winter to New Mexico and since they won't have any adult cranes with them, there was a depressingly large possibility that they might get lost on their way or not find a good place to stay and feed. Yet in a last note of hope in the closing scene, we saw the cranes flying far over the land... following the farmer who was leading them in a microlite. He hoped to fly with them all the way to Mexico to make sure they got there safely.

As I wiped an imaginary tear from my eye, I thought to myself that there are still good people out there in the world, even if it's only a matter of time before someone like Disney exploits this beautiful story into a crass commercialistic nightmare.

This PBS page on the series, called The Life of Birds, has a few paragraphs towards the bottom about the whooping cranes.

4:15 PM | permalink | discuss

Monday, March 5

The final installment of the TED11 trip report is now online. It's not quite up to the standards of the other installments since I was quite tired when I wrote it, although I'll probably be touching it up in the next few days. This basically means that normal service will be resumed on Vavatch tomorrow.

10:39 PM | permalink | discuss

Sunday, March 4

Yeah yeah, I know I only write about the trip report, but it'll be done soon. I'm more than halfway through and it'll be finished in two days. I added a couple thousand more words today and a few photos in part two of the report. Check it out. By the way, I just went to a Mars Society UK meeting yesterday - very fun, very interesting, I'll talk about it later.

9:14 PM | permalink | discuss