Saturday, July 21
I loved this review of Cleopatra 2525 from the Times:
A potential award-winner from Channel 5 in the fiercely contested category for the worst television programme ever made. It is difficult to know exactly what is going on, but various women who live underground and wear sci-fi swimsuits fire laser guns at large plastic flies that hover Zepplin-like above the surface of the Earth. Sometimes they also fire their guns at robots wrapped in baking foil who have come under the influence of the flies.
I just saw an interesting documentary on Discovery Health called Why Men Don't Iron*, about the emotional differences between the sexes. There were all sorts of interesting little snippets, including the fact that men find it more difficult to distinguish when women are feeling sad as opposed to happy through facial features and body language alone - there was a great quote about this where one researcher said, "When men don't seem to pick up on what women feel, it's not because they don't care, it's simply because they can't tell." Amen brother!
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the documentary. I remember thinking at the start, when they conducted their own test which showed that women can multitask better than men (something about integrated brain functions as opposed to modularised - can't say I've heard it before myself), that the test was ridiculous - small sample size, too many outside factors, correlation doesn't mean causation, etc etc. Right on cue, the programme admitted that all of these problems existed but the test's results did follow predictions made by other more rigorous tests. I was impressed, not only by that but also their efforts to emphasise the importance of environmental and social factors in behaviour.
Perhaps all of this is simply because recently I've had a low opinion of TV documentaries in general; I appreciate that there's only so much you can say in an hour to the 'informed layman' but that doesn't excuse broad generalisations and whatnot.
So anyway, if you have Sky television then it's worth checking to see if the programme is being repeated.
*It was the third episode, Emotional Differences, that I saw
I've just received some wonderfully absurd and literally unbelievable good news about money with regards to Generation Mars. If it pans out the way I hope it will, then I will be a very happy guy. If it doesn't, then I won't be too surprised since these things tend to happen when money is involved. But still, a man can hope...
Friday, July 20
I finally found out the answer to something that's been bugging me for far too long now - what a CHUD is.
You see, on a Simpsons episode called The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson, Homer tells his family a tale of woe about the last time he went to New York when he suffered various misfortunes and was robbed of everything he owned. At the end of the story, Homer says morosely, "...and that's when the CHUDs came for me."
References to these CHUDs popped up intermittently in popular culture but I never figured out what it meant... until today, when someone (Jim Battista) explained that it stood for 'Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller' and originated from the 'serious' horror flick CHUD. There's also a hilariously named sequel called CHUD II: Bud the CHUD.
So now I can die a happy man.
I was reading an interesting discussion about the archetypical 'Ugly American' on the Internet today when someone made the startling observation (at least, it was startling to me) that Americans only use the fork in their left hand while cutting something. I couldn't believe it! At all the places I've stayed in America (approximately two, but I did have the privelege of witnessing many dozens or hundreds of people eat) I never remembered seeing this. But apparently it is true among a sizeable number of Americans, according to this article (excerpts follow):
The Zig Zag Method
I had a very strange dream last night. For some reason, some of my friends and I were out walking late at night and we were ambushed by a gang toting machine guns. We immediately sprung into action and a few of us managed to wrest the guns away from the gang and open fire. While this was happening, I sprinted over to one side to grab a gun that was lying on the pavement. Unfortunately, someone intercepted me and stabbed me three times in the abdomen.
[I remember thinking at the time that it didn't seem to hurt that much although I did get a bit dizzy]
Anyway, after that I picked up the gun and speedily dispatched my assailant. When I turned around, I saw one of my friends diving John Woo-style sideways firing a pistol at the gang members, with lots of clouds of blood flying around. After that the gang members' bodies mysteriously disappeared and it started raining so we had to wait under a bus shelter before the ambulance came. At that point there was a discontinuity in the dream and I recall the ambulance beeping its horn - since I figured that I'd probably be waiting around in the hospital a lot, I picked up my copy of How the Mind Works to read along the way.
The rest of the dream was pretty boring. I can only attribute this strange dream to having watched snippets of the Negotiator, Austin Powers 2 and a trailer for the upcoming PC game Max Payne before I went to bed.
Thursday, July 19
I've been working on the Mars Society UK Development Site Mark 2 for the last few days now ('Mark 2' sounds pretty cool, doesn't it?). The first Development Site took me quite a while to build since I'd never worked with PHP before and as it used PHP-Nuke 4.4, which is as bug-ridden a piece of software I've ever come across, things weren't made any easier for me. After far too trying to figure out what various unlikely pieces of code did and didn't do, I simply gave up and left the site half-finished.
Fast-forward a few months and I find myself with a few problems. First, the site still isn't finished - there's no rush but I'm always reminded of my failure every time I look at the Mars Society sites and shudder in distaste. Second, at the end of this month I discover that we'll be moving web hosting services, getting credit card processing facilities and receiving a few thousand Mars maps for sale. So to ease the transition and to preclude having to update the website one more time than is strictly necessary, I decided to get a move on and finish off the site.
I wasn't looking forward to it, since the memory of developing the first site had grown steadily darker and more horrible in my mind with every passing day of my giving up. Luckily though a whole new version of PHP-Nuke had been released with all the bugs ironed out and a whole host of nice features that made my life a lot easier. In but a couple of days I managed to get a lot of work done.
At that point, it was suggested to me that I should change the website background to black. Now, when I had to do that the first time around, I ended up spending far too long messing about with font tags and colours on every single page of the site. This time I just changed a CSS file (d'oh!).
Anyway, it's looking quite nice now and most importantly it doesn't look identical to Slashdot. In fact, with the various things we're going to do with the sidebar and front page, it'll look pretty damn nice. 'Functional and nice?' I hear you cry, 'how is that possible?'
By the way, if anyone knows what the name of the font used in the top 'Mars Society' banner in the website is, please let me know. If you have the font, that's even better.
Wednesday, July 18
I've recently been reading How the Mind Works by Steve Pinker, which is a pretty decent non-pop-science book about cognition and neural computation. I have to admit that I'm finding it slightly hard going; unlike my usual 'finish a book a day' tack which I employ reading most other stuff, with How the Mind Works I'm pleased when I manage to get 70 pages done. Just goes to show that I haven't been reading anywhere near as many science books as I should be.
Still, it's all very good stuff and I'm looking forward even more to the Neurobiology and Experimental Psychology courses I'll be doing next year.
There's been quite a bit of publicity lately for the new series by the BBC called Space. It actually looks pretty decent - they've gotten a 'name' actor (Sam Neill) and put him together with generous amounts of computer generated imagery, so you get to see him walking around black holes and so on.
When I first heard about this, I thought, 'Well, hold on a sec, isn't this exactly the same as The Planets?' And of course it isn't, since it's not exclusively about the planets. Anyway, I never really did latch on to that series - it seemed a little too slow for me and I knew most of the stuff they were talking about.
That's really one of the main problems I have with watching science programmes on TV these days; if I watch something, it's usually about biology or space. Unfortunately, since I've been doing that and reading books and the Internet for several years now, there isn't that much stuff that I can actually learn from a TV programme, which in all fairness will (and should) be aimed at beginners to the subject. So, earlier this year I switched over to watching the History channel non-stop - there's all sorts of interesting stuff on it.
After a while though I realised that they kept on repeating all the same programmes, which were all about the same subjects in the first place: WW1, WW2, prohibition, the Great Depression, and various famous criminals. Occasionally you'd see stuff about ancient history but remember, this is an American programme we're talking about here.
Still, to get back to the point, this new BBC series looks promising and it's debuting this Sunday at 8:30pm on BBC1. I'll probably be watching it, although not for the right reasons (I always like seeing new CGI). And what the hell, it'll make a change from all the dinosaur programmes that seem to be on these days...
Sunday, July 15
There's something which has been bothering me for a while about university. It's that university is supposed to be 'the best time of your life.'
People tend to use this phrase in any number of contexts. I hear it by older people who wistfully look back on their past japes, or in particular by some of my friends at university who tell me that 'you shouldn't waste your time doing x because university is the best time of your life.'
I think this is patently silly. Disregarding the usual get-out pomo clause, I would probably agree that many people did enjoy their time at university. Unfortunately, because of the way the mind works in suppressing bad experiences and highlighting good ones, the vast majority of people view university as some kind of responsibility-free, no-work, all-fun heaven. I can certainly say my memory works in that way, considering that for some terrible reason I seem to think that my time in Combined Cadet Force was actually fun, when objectively I know that it was an utterly miserable, soul-eating and time-wasting experience.
Okay, perhaps things are different in universities other than Oxbridge. Scratch that - I know they are. But that makes little difference if any. I don't intend, once I finish university, to think 'Well, it all goes downhill from here, I'm never going to have as fun a time I did back then.' University may well be a fun experience, but I want my entire life to be a fun experience. It's not as if we're only allowed three years of it, you know.
So if I hear someone at university telling me that I shouldn't watch television because 'we should be out having fun,' I sigh to myself and patiently explain that I actually enjoy watching certain television programmes with my friends and that they shouldn't be so damn snobbish, especially considering that in roughly 30 weeks of being at university, I've only watched 30 minutes of television.
Moral of the story: Yes, university is fun, but that doesn't stop you from having fun the rest of your life.
I went and added some photos of a special AI game poster I received a couple of days ago to go along with my Amsterdam report - you might be interested.