Friday, March 23

Yesterday I mentioned a website called Fictionwise. I've talked about websites offering short science fiction stories here before, such as Bookface (which is now sadly departed), and all of them were fairly good. However, Fictionwise has to be the first website on the Internet that I've thought is actually good enough to spend money on. You buy micropay credits in blocks of $5 and use them to purchase individual short stories costing from 50 cents to $2, depending on length.

This isn't anything particularly new, although I'd have to say that Fictionwise makes the process very seamless. What is new is that they've managed to their hands on some of the very best short SF out there - stuff that is actually worth paying for. Previously on the other sites you'd have to buy entire books (but who wants to read an entire book on the computer?) or a bunch of random SF stories, many of which weren't any good. Conversely, Fictionwise has something in excess of 20 or 30 Nebula/Hugo Award winners in its library, among several hundred short stories, at least 30% of which I'd term 'worth paying for'.

So far I've bought about ten stories which comes to maybe $7 - it comes out just a little bit cheaper than buying a normal book. I don't really mind having the stories in an electronic format because you can't get them in a printed format anyway.

I have a slight ulterior motive in mentioning Fictionwise here.

'Aha!' I hear you cry. 'I knew that good-for-nothing Adrian had some dastardly money-making scheme up his sleeve what with all this talk of magical bookstores on computers and suchlike, so I did!'

But no. For this money-saving scheme works both ways. They've set up a system where people who've bought stories can recommend them to friends. The friend gets to buy the recommended story for 10% less, and the recommender gets 10% of the story price credited to his/her micropay account. Everyone is happy. So if you enjoy short SF and would like to get a discount and also earn my gratitude, register at Fictionwise and then choose which of the following stories you want (all of which are really, really good). When you go to purchase them, use the coupon reference I've written next to their links to get the 10% discount.

Danny Goes to Mars: A touching and very funny story about how Dan Quayle is sent to Mars. Coupon Ref.: REF14198593D739

Out of Copyright: A future where corporations are spending billions in order to clone some of the best minds of the past in order to win huge engineering contracts. Reads much better than it sounds. Coupon Ref.: REF14198218D811

The Einstein Express: A short and sweet story about a man who boards a train travelling at nine-tenths the speed of light. Helps to explain the Theory of Relativity as well. Coupon Ref.: REF14198046D002

Anyway. What with all this talk of short stories, an ambitious new idea is slowly churning around in my mind. If it works, I will be unimaginably pleased. More about this idea sometime soon...

5:26 PM | permalink | discuss

Thursday, March 22

An excerpt from an email I sent to the Mars Society UK Steering Group (of which I am a part, you'll be relieved to hear):

Finally, are we going to have a stand at the London Yuri's Night party? If so, I think we should start sorting it out now. I think we could get a fair bit of publicity there from space-friendly clubbers and as I've mentioned before, I'm planning to be there myself so I'd be happy to man the stand for as long as I'm sober.

Check out Fictionwise - the one, new, true home of short science fiction on the Internet. But don't buy anything yet, because I have a cunning way to save money which I will reveal tomorrow...

11:39 PM | permalink | discuss

Continuing on the space theme, my prayers have been answered - the SciFi channel have commissioned a new Babylon 5 movie called The Legend of the Rangers which is the likely pilot of a whole new B5 series. Needless to say, fans around the world have been rejoicing at this news especially considering that JMS (the creator of B5) will be given full creative control over the show unlike what he had for the ill-fated B5 spinoff Crusade. Any television network that says the captain of a new ship must engage in fisticuffs in the first two minutes of the pilot ought to be shot (I'm talking about TNT here).

En2leet is a very silly yet very fun page that will translate what you write into that strange pseudo-text that wannabe-hackers use - you know, something like #EY |>|_||>35, jo0 K||0W I J|_|sT #4k|<3d INt0 d|s||3y!. No, I don't understand it either, but I guess that's the point.

2:01 PM | permalink | discuss

Wednesday, March 21

On April 12th, it will be exactly fourty years since the first human (Yuri Gagarin) went into space. It will also be twenty years since the Space Shuttle first took off. There have been a whole host of parties and events planned around the world for Yuri's Night, and if you're looking for a good night out and have at least an open mind about space, I'd recommend you to check it out. I personally will be at a club down in London (the Rocket Complex, Holloway Road) to celebrate along with a whole load of people from the Space Education Council, UKSEDS and the Mars Society UK who organised the thing in the first place.

Believe it or not, this is a bona fide party with a real DJ (woo!) and only over 18's are allowed (in other words, no, it is not muted gathering of space-wackos with no alcohol). So if you're interested, why not come along?

Incredibly, out of all the countries holding Yuri's Night parties, the UK is at number 1 with six individual events, beating the USA into the dust with its paltry four.

I've been ploughing my way through The Penguin History of the World and have been pleasantly surprised by its quality. From the very beginning when it went into a very informed discussion of the evolution of humans, it won me over as I gathered that the author had clearly researched the topic thoroughly. Unfortunately, even at 1100 pages in length it can afford only an overview of any historical event and I'm still trying to get used to the huge amounts of speculation (admittedly coupled with huge amounts of facts) that historians employ - you can tell I've read far too many science books. So far I'm just 100 pages in but it's proving to be an excellent read; I'm discovering just how little I know about history (does an A* at GCSE count for anything in this day and age?)

7:36 PM | permalink | discuss

I've always felt that the best way to ensure you really understand a scientific concept is to explain it to a layman. That way, you have ensure that your explanation is self-consistent and that you understand the fundamentals on which it's based. So when, during last summer, I attempted to explain the origins of life on a molecular basis to a friend, halfway in I realised that I didn't actually know how it worked apart from in the broadest terms. Of course, I didn't tell that to her at the time because as those of you who know me, it's nigh well impossible to get me to admit when I'm wrong once I'm in full flow. Instead I spent about an hour talking about self-replicating minerals and evolution and natural selection and drawing lots of diagrams on a piece of paper before changing the subject to how American SATs were a waste of time.

Lately, the question of the molecular origins of life popped up again on the Culture mailing list, and to my satisfaction I was able to answer it properly:

Ah yes, the origins of life. Such a simple topic :)

[gets out lecture notes as he realises that he doesn't know enough to answer this by himself]

Back when all of this were sludge, about 4 to 4.5 billion years ago, conditions on Earth (temperature, atmosphere, elements) were such that you could expect all sorts of molecules floating around like methane, ammonia, water and amino acids. Not to say that they'd exactly be abundant, but experiments have been performed (notably the Miller-Urey experiment) that show that these chemicals can be formed in sludge-like conditions.

RNA is an information bearing molecule made up of nucleotides, which are made up of a pentose sugar, a base (A, U, C or G) and a phosphate group. RNA could conceivably have been made via random reactions 4.5 billion years ago, considering that all the building blocks mentioned above were present. When you factor in the truly mind-boggling timescales involved - billions of years - it was very likely that something like RNA would have popped up.

So, you have your RNA. The question is, how does it replicate? This is the clever bit. It's been observed that a piece of RNA from the
ciliate protozoan Tetrahymena can cut a piece out of itself providing that a guanosine (G) nucleotide happens to be floating around nearby (this is quite likely if you have RNA in the first place).

The piece of RNA that is cut out can go on to cut more bits out of itself (what it does is it essentially folds around on itself. Imagine a piece of string with a razor on the end. The string folds and the razor cuts off a bit of string at the other end). The bits that get cut out can add themselves onto intermediate products of the cutting out process. After you go a bit cross-eyed after looking at this cycle, you suddenly realise that this piece of RNA can effectively replicate itself by cutting bits off and adding bits on.

(This is hard to understand if you don't have a diagram, but believe me, it works)

The clever thing with RNA is that unlike DNA, it can fold itself into very elaborate structures with catalytic groups (the reason that DNA cannot do this is because it lacks one particular oxygen atom which reduces its reactivity). You can get bits of RNA that can read other bits and perhaps make stuff, such as proteins, from amino acids that are floating around.

RNA catalysed RNA replication has a very high error rate, and estimates show that you can only have 100 nucleotides in an RNA molecule before the whole thing collapses in on itself and errors in the replication process bugger it all up.


There is a positive feedback cycle to make the replication process less error-prone, and it is called the Darwin- Eigen cycle.

Selection increases fidelity --- Larger genome size --- New functions evolve --- Selection increases fidelity --- ...

From then on, you get the development of protein functions to assist the RNA in replication and perhaps chopping stuff up, and also the utilsation of DNA as a more stable genetic storage medium.

11:44 AM | permalink | discuss

Tuesday, March 20

It appears that Scott Bakula, the star of one of the only SF shows that managed to batter its way into a wider audience (Quantum Leap), is up for the role of lead actor in the new Star Trek series. From what I've read of this new series, rumoured to be called Star Trek: Enterprise, its James T. Kirk's crew having the adventures of Captain Picard. Make of that what you will.

Interestingly, researchers at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency in America claim to have found the lost Mars Polar Lander on photographs from the Mars Global Surveyor. What's more, they say that the lander is intact and is standing on its legs. Big deal, you might say, considering that the damn thing still isn't working. Aha, but it is a big deal considering the NASA originally thought it was lost because it had smashed into the ground. If what NIMA says is true, then there was absolutely nothing wrong with the landing system on the MPL - it's just the communications equipment or something related that went wrong.

'Okay,' you say, 'but what does that matter? NASA was wrong again, so?'

So, NASA just happens to have a near-identical probe to the MPL called the Mars Surveyor (consisting of a lander and rover) that is sitting in a lab somewhere. Ever since the MPL was lost, people at NASA assumed that the whole thing was faulty and didn't think it would be worth launching the Mars Surveyor if it was just going to go and crash. Now it seems that the Mars Surveyor, with a bit of modification, could go ahead.

Of course, NIMA might be wrong. Who knows.

I read this article about a virtual House of Commons debating forum on BBC News with interest - online participatory democracy, this is the sort of thing I like. Endeavouring to find out more, I discovered that the two organisations behind the report, Citizens Online and the Institute for Public Policy Research, do not appear to use the Internet particularly well themselves.

Citizens Online has a godawful website made out of Flash which took me over two minutes to actually get anywhere. I fired off an angry email to them saying that they're hardly promoting the usefulness and accessibility of the Internet if their site requires a high-bandwith connection. Apart from the fact that Flash can't be printed properly, the text can't be resized, navigation doesn't work properly and it's near useless for the blind, it wasn't even good Flash!

The Institute for Public Policy Research was marginally better, which means they were still pretty bad. On reaching their website, I was confronted by ten icons and no text. Nice. If I wanted to find out what the links were, I had to hover my pointer over the icons and wait for a new image to load, which they didn't.

They could argue that their websites don't matter, but then that's a slightly ridiculous excuse given the cause they're promoting.

6:19 PM | permalink | discuss

Monday, March 19

Curses, there are still problems with viewing this weblog in Mac IE5 (thanks to Ian for pointing this out). I'm going to look into this properly tomorrow morning, but a quick examination didn't reveal any insights to the problem.

When I was flying back to Heathrow from New York, after the TED conference, I looked out of the window and saw an interestingly shaped building below the plane... a few seconds later, I realised that what I was looking at was the 600 million Millennium Dome.

I have mixed feelings about the Millennium Dome. I don't fault the government for wanting to do something to celebrate the Millennium, but I'll add my voice to those who are incredulous about the price. Compared to the Eden Project, which cost a mere 70 or 80 million, it's almost horrific. If only they decided to build one in London instead of the Dome...

Talking to some friends at Cambridge over dinner about the relative level of taxation in European countries (thrilling, right?), I remarked that much of what we were saying was a moot point considering the profound changes in technology and thus society the world will experience within the next twenty to thirty years. Now, even I find it difficult to believe how the world could possibly be much different from what it is now, in 20 or 30 years, but I found my friend's complete dismissal that there would be much change at all completely incredible.

I rattled off my usual list of (what I feel are conservative) predictions for the future, such as an effective doubling of the human lifespan, human level artificial intelligences, machine automation of all manual tasks, machine automation of all transport facitilies, permanent and transparent online access to the Internet (e.g. via retinal-projector glasses) with < 1 metre global positioning resolution - all of this will happen within twenty years, some within ten, I believe. The only thing they agreed with was the last item, and even then I don't think they realised exactly how world-shattering that alone could be.

And the thing is, everything that I've mentioned there is perfectly possible. Research into stem cells will be surging ahead in the coming years and coupled with the proper, heavy-duty computer analysis of the human genome and proteome, it seems that there will be little that we cannot do in the field of medicine. Human level AI? I'll readily admit that this is the prediction I am most uncertain about. The exponential growth in processing speed and storage means that we'll certainly have the structure for an AI, but you can't simply build a 'neural net' and press Go. I imagine that AI researchers will have a lot to learn from neurobiologists and psychologists - as well as teachers - in the coming decade.

Machine automation of all manual tasks? Already happening. Machine automation of all transport facitilies? Ditto. In fact, I'm most looking forward to this one because it'll mean that theoretically I'll be able to get anywhere, any time, much quicker than I can now, by calling for the next available automated car pool to pick me up via my permanent glasses Internet access, naturally. Which of course is practically here now - when the 3G mobile se rvices get working, the high bandwidth infrastructure will be in place and I only really mentioned the glasses thing because that'll add another couple of years onto development time.

The future's bright...

10:48 PM | permalink | discuss

Sunday, March 18

Back home in West Kirby now, which is where I'll be for the next three weeks.

10:19 PM | permalink | discuss