Thursday, July 26

Well, I'm off to Seattle tomorrow to do all sorts of strange and wonderful things. And see them as well. Anyway, you can expect a full trip report, as is the tradition whenever I go somewhere interesting with my camera. I'll be back on August 3rd (Friday).

Anyway, I've been working (well, procrastinating) on the New Mars website for the last few days. Believe it or not, there is actually more to the website than a splash screen (I nicked the graphics from a second-generation GenMars logo mockup), and you can see what I've done with the real site.

From what I've been hearing from various sources and my own personal experience, it seems like girls are now outnumbering boys in the 'interested in space' stakes. Goes against popular wisdom but I suppose it makes sense.

/ forum / 07:43 pm GMT

Tuesday, July 24

How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker

If this book is any different from other science books, it's in the density of the ideas. Never before have I encountered the sheer number and variety of ideas, concepts and facts about the brain or indeed any other subject packed within 560 pages. It's almost bewildering, and often I had the feeling that many lesser books could have taken a single chapter from How the Mind Works, expanded it and still ended up with a decent book.

I've refrained from using the word 'pop science' in this review because I think that How the Mind Works, like a few other notable books (such as The Elegant Universe) transcends the traditional ideas of pop science books that don't present challenging ideas or make the reader figure out things for himself. And of course the book is better for it; there were several times during my reading that I had to back up and think to myself, 'Well, exactly what does this mean?' or 'How does this work?'

That might seem like a fault of poor explanations on Pinker's part, but I don't agree. I suspect one of the reasons why I found the first few chapters of this book so tough to get through is because I'm not used to thinking for myself rather than having things spoonfed to me - which still occurs in Cambridge University, would you credit it! But perhaps I'm giving Pinker undue praise here. The first few chapters were difficult to read and they still would have been difficult even if I was a regular reader of science books.

This difficulty comes from the way in which Pinker has placed (to me) all of the most difficult and complex concepts right at the start of the book. I think it's a very brave thing for him to do and it gets all the tough stuff out of the way so that he can discuss the more interesting and sexy topics without having to fill in backstory - but of course it doesn't come without its penalties.

So exactly what is this book about? As you'd expect from this type of book, it isn't an examination of how the neurones and dendrites within the brain interact on a biochemical basis - rather, it takes a more systems-based view that nevertheless incorporates and hypothesises on how the behaviour of individual neurones might influence gross behaviour. For example, in his sections on the categorisation and associational areas of the brain, he proposes a way in which the interactions of individual neurones might create a full functioning logic processor (hence the word 'neuro-logical'), through established knowledge that neurones have synapses and impulses that require certain thresholds to be met.

But that's not all. Pinker discusses every question and aspect of the brain and consciousness - how we see (from photons striking our retina to the creation of a mental 'picture' and models of objects), how we talk, how we experience emotions, and why we do all of this from an evolutionary point of view. You'd expect that if he has to cover such a huge range he can hardly afford to talk about specifics in each case, but he somehow manages to pull it off.

When I first started reading this book, I felt satisfied if I read 50 pages in one day. Towards the end I voraciously read the last 150 pages in a few hours. How the Mind Works provided me with insight on any number of subjects about the brain and also helped me clear up my confusion on concepts regarding emotions. I didn't agree with everything that Pinker wrote (in particular, his beliefs about the evolution of sexual reproduction) but it was all well-thought out.

It's not an easy book to read at first, but nothing worth doing is ever easy. Read this book if you have the slightest interest in how your brain works.

/ forum / 11:47 pm GMT

Monday, July 23

So the first episode of Space ended about 100 seconds ago, and I've found myself magically drawn towards my computer, compelled to write about it. What did I think of it?

I thought it was pretty good. The intro sequence showed an incredible montage of computer generated imagery and Sam Neill was suitably enigmatic and non-American sounding to kick the show off. Fittingly, the first episode was about the formation of stars and planets - there were a few good interviews but I thought the production qualities were decidedly uneven at points. On the one hand, you had some stunning CGI and on the other, you had some laughably old and grainy stock footage that was supposed to show weather on Earth or something.

And of course there are dangers with CGI. One is that you end up never actually getting to see Sam Neill - instead he's just a narrator (and that'd never do, considering how much they're paying him). The BBC neatly sidestepped this problem by splicing the CGI into a live-action Sam outside in New Zealand, which worked pretty well except they didn't use it that often, probably because it was quite difficult to do.

Another problem is that no matter how good your CGI is, it's never easy to show what the interior of a star is, so all that wonderous imagery of its sunspots and flares degenerates into some murky red gunk when the camera goes inside. It was sad to see that Space did not deviate from this grand tradition of documentaries.

But I'm being overly negative here. While Space wasn't a 'deep' programme, I think it was quite accessible to the average viewer and there were some excellent sequences. In particular, they produced a superb CGI clip which showed the coalescence of a new second generation star from clouds of gas liberated from the first ever supernovae; set to the score of the Blue Danube (the old ones are always the best ones), you got to see the clumps of matter joining together in larger and larger segments to form a star, which then produced a shockwave to blow out all the other gas loitering in its accretion disk to leave behind the larger of matter-clumps, which then went on to form planets. First class stuff.

I did think that they were quite generous in saying that panspermia was a possibility for the origin of life on Earth, considering that it's far from being an accepted theory*. Unfortunately, I realised that the only reason they mentioned panspermia was because they wanted to produce a sequence (good CGI with terrible, awful stock footage - what were they thinking?) where they could use the voiceover '...and this was the exact moment that life began on Earth.' Either that, or they didn't want to get bogged down in replicators and evolutionary theory.

It was a fairly good start, I think, especially when the formation of stars and planets aren't really that easy to describe on TV. I imagine that when they move onto more interesting stuff like black holes and Mars, it'll pick up somewhat. Well, I know it will, because they've interviewed the usual suspects of Mars scientists from the Mars Society.

*I have no problem with panspermia as a theory and of course it's not impossible for life or spore-bearing comets from other planets to get here. But when they say that 'Panspermia must have happened because life appeared on Earth too quickly,' they're not really offering an explanation because life had to start somewhere, and when you factor in the travel times for a comet going from one star to another (I don't even want to think of how long it could take - at least millions, possibly billions of years), it's not so nice. Still, intrasystem panspermia is a reasonable concept, as demonstrated by ALH84001.

...I bet none of you know what the hell I'm talking about any more, right?

/ forum / 01:16 am GMT

Sunday, July 22

There was a pretty amusing (and accurate, in my opinion) restaurant review/assessment of the public's opinion on genetically modified food in the Sunday Times today, written by AA Gill. Not normally the sort of guy who I envisaged would get worked up about this sort of stuff, but he's a man of my own heart when it comes to GM foods.

Speaking of the Sunday Times, I hear that they're going to start charging for online content soon, as are the Britannica. I'm of two minds about charging for online content. I'm well aware that it's ridiculously easy to obtain usernames and passwords for everything that requires money on the Internet, so it's not a question of 'having' to spend money to access this content - providing that performing illegal acts aren't a problem with you. And of course it isn't to most people judging by the proliferation of music sharing systems and pirated software.

So the real question is whether you are willing to spend the money to support these services; are they good enough for you to make a 'donation' towards their running costs?

I really could only name a couple of online resources that I'd be willing to pay for: Salon and Britannica. I visit them fairly regularly at certain times (Salon less regularly since I'm getting out of my procrastination stage, and Britannica because I'm not at university). Salon costs $30 per year, and I think the proposed subscription fee for Britannica will cost $50 per year. To me, that's not cheap, even though a subscription to both would cost something like 31p per day.

Micropayments? I don't know. They've been touted as the solution to Everything for the Internet but I suspect the reality (which will surely come eventually) will not be as wonderful as people think. Users on the Internet just aren't used to paying for content, not yet at least.

/ forum / 11:48 pm GMT

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