Thursday, 22 November 2007

Thursday Ted: VIII Creativity, Copyright, and the Law

This week's TED is by Larry Lessig, someone I have been a fan of for about a year now. He is a Stanford professor specializing in the study of copyright, and in a social dialogue that is so often little more than ad hominem attacks and crude generalizations, his is always a voice of reason.

On a personal note, I apologize for the lack of posting. I've been mega-busy with work, and have been at some stage of a cold for 8 weeks running now. Hopefully more posting soon, but no guarantees.

Thursday, 1 November 2007


In case anyone forgot, there is still a war on. No wait, make that two wars. You didn't forget about Afghanistan, did you? If anyone needs a refresher on how utterly foolish and wasteful it was to invade Iraq, this graph compares the cost of the war to the amount spent on researching new energy technologies -- something that might actually make the world a universally better place. The units are millions of dollars; figures are from the Department of Energy.

Why can't we provide health care to poor children? "It's too expensive." Why can't we cut toxic emissions? "It's too expensive." Why can't we invest in renewable energy? "It's too expensive."

Uh huh.

The American Friends Service Committee also produces an excellent line of posters which illustrate what a day in Iraq could have been spent on. Print-quality downloads are available from their site.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Job Specialization in Academia

Having attended both a small university in the US and a large university in the UK for my undergraduate degree, and now studying/researching/teaching at a different large university in the UK during my postgraduate years, I've had some exposure to different styles of educational institutions, and experienced being on both sides of the desk.

One observation that has been increasingly on my mind is the nature of the dual teaching and researching responsibilities of academic staff at the larger universities. It is fairly standard that academics do both research and teaching as a part of their job description. However, almost without exception, every big-university professor I've met identifies more as a researcher than a teacher. Teaching becomes something that they appreciate the necessity of, much like committee meetings, but is often seen as just another job responsibility which must be done before they can get down to their "real" work -- research. This is a situation that appears to benefit neither the staff nor the students. To borrow an analogy from Mitch Hedberg, it is like asking that chefs also farm, and farmers also cook. Although their work shares the central element of food, requiring practitioners to both grow it and prepare it makes little sense. Similarly, researching and teaching revolve around knowledge, but generating new knowledge (research) and disseminating existing knowledge (teaching) rely on entirely different skill sets, and I cannot see why there is not more job specialization within academia. I've seen the current system produce a fair amount of both bad teaching and bad research by academics who are drawn more to the other component.

Of course, there are teaching-focused universities in the UK -- but they are generally considered a tier below the research universities. Why not have dedicated teaching staff teach most undergrad classes at all large universities? Allow the researchers to do more research, and have specially trained teachers do the actual teaching. It seems everyone would get a better deal: the students, the researchers, and those who love to teach, but do not wish to pursue research and grants. The current professors can continue to teach postgraduate classes -- this makes sense as most postgraduate work is heavily research based, and PGs are expected to learn for themselves from original source material.

These are just my recent thoughts -- there may be factors I've not yet thought of... can anyone give me a good reason why our current system is better?

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Thursday TED: VII Understanding the Brain

This is a great presentation from renowned neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran, in which he talks about how unusual brain injuries and brain structures can reveal how normal brains work. In particular, he talks about phantom limb pain, synesthesia (when people hear colour or smell sounds), and the Capgras delusion, when brain-damaged people believe their closest friends and family have been replaced with imposters. Great stuff.

I just love how he pronounces his Rs.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Blog Action Day: Local Veggie Boxes

As you may or may not know, today is Blog Action Day. (thanks earthchick!) The 15 of October is a day for bloggers to all write about a very important topic: our environment.

A fair chunk of posts on Exeterra are already about the environment, but it's time for another :)

This Saturday I went with some fellow members of the Green Society to Shillingford Organics, a local organic farm on 200-something acres. We had a great time getting a tour of their low-impact methods and trying our hands at farm work. We pulled dock, harvested more winter squash than I will eat in a hundred lifetimes, and planted garlic further than the eye can see. Here are some pictures:

Martyn shows us which yummy veggies to harvest.

We planted rows of garlic (one clove every six inches) on this strip of land, which was a few hundred metres long.

At the end, Martyn gave us as many free vegetables as we could carry. I have never seen people so ecstatic over carrots.

At the end of the day, I signed up for a weekly vegetable box. Shillingford delivers to a few hundred local households and restaurants, providing them with weekly vegetables that have been harvested no more than a day or two before arriving. You really have to taste this stuff to believe it -- there are lush flavours and sweet smells that I didn't know existed. The one bad thing I will say about their veg is that once you try it, you will never be able to eat supermarket vegetables again.

Although it is not as high-profile as automobiles, electricity use, or recycling, how our food is produced is just as environmentally important. With a local veggie box program -- or some other system of community supported agriculture -- you reach a win-win-win situation.

You win because you get the best vegetables ever delivered to you. Because there is no middle-man, the prices are comparable to supermarket prices. You actually know who grows your food, and have a connection with that person.

Your community wins because you are employing local small-scale farmers. You can also meet other like-minded people if you pick up your box from a neighbourhood delivery point. In some systems, the members spend a small portion of time working at the farm -- and believe it or not, this can be quite a lot of fun.

The environment wins because organic community supported agriculture can be very low-impact. Shillingford is within walking distance from my house, so not many food miles there. The vegetables are fertilized naturally through crop rotation (no petrochemicals in this food chain), pests are controlled biologically, and the harvest is gathered by hand. The farm supports us, but not at the expense of wildlife -- ponds, hedges, and woodland are integrated into the farm design to allow for co-existence rather than compartmentalization.

Most places in the US and UK have several organic vegetables box systems available -- try Googling it; you may be surprised at what you find. Most allow a trial veggie box so you can see if you like it -- so go ahead, give it a try! If you live in Exeter, I've already put a list together.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Science Sunday VIII: Cymatics

Cymatics is the study of wave phenomena, often sound waves' impact upon physical objects. The video below shows a variety of frequencies acting on loose table salt.

I've never seen salt look so sweet.

Regular posting will resume when possible.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Green Soc Success - And Chockas

The first Green Soc meeting was tonight, and I'd say it went pretty well. We had about 40 people show up for the meeting, and had to go to another room (ok- it was the student bar) that had room for us. Met lots of great, enthusiastic people. Our first big event is going to be at Shillingford Organics next Saturday (13 Oct). We'll get a tour and do some work - I worked for them for a weekend during the summer, and it's a great operation. About 30 people have expressed interest in going so far. Should be a great year.

In other news, Christian made a slightly disturbing poster of Chockas, in the traditional amotivational-poster style, which is now my desktop background.

Monday, 1 October 2007


Sorry to be a slack blogger - things have been picking up around here. A brief update of what has been going on:

Today was officially the first day of university classes, so there have been the usual rounds of meeting with convenors, professors, and other teaching assistants during the past week. I'm helping with the usual array of stats and psych classes, plus the stats helpdesk and I'm one of the MSc mentors. It's strange to walk around campus and see other people. And of course because 12,000 students have arrived here in the past week (the city is only 100,000 people), it means the Fresher's Flu is going around campus - I got it Saturday, but it's not too bad. Other people have been pretty busy too; I went into my office at 20:00 on Saturday, and found only 1 of the 5 people (self included) who share the office was not there working. Still, it's kind of fun to have so much stuff going on after the lull of summer.

The preparations for Green Society have been proceeding smoothly. We had a get-together of the committee members last week and made a banner and posters for the Fresher's Fair (which was Sunday.) 200 people signed up at the fair, and our first meeting will be tomorrow. Still much to do there - Green Week is in November, and we have about 20 events scheduled. This is the new Green Soc website - it's a modified blog because I didn't feel like coding raw HTML like I've done in the past - it's still pretty bare at the moment.

Our bunny Cocoa is being re-homed on Wednesday. He's a sweety, but the other bunnies bully him too much for his well-being.

Oh, and our new washing machine should arrive tomorrow. Our old one has been broken for more than a week. (!)

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Furries Vs. Klingons Bowl-a-thon

For some reason this makes me inordinately happy: This weekend in Atlanta, there is a bowling tournament between Furries and Klingons. It's just like the Internet manifested in to reality! But of course, this raises an awkward question: which groups do the targs join? Their site mentions they are going to a meal afterwards. I would love to be able to watch their arrival... I wonder if anybody will try to substitute mayo for gagh?

(Found via Boing Boing.)

Monday, 24 September 2007

New Word of the Day: Spaghettification

Move over defenestration; there is a new word of the day: spaghettification!

Considering that defenestration has been an historically favoured way of disposing of corrupt leaders, I can only hope this trend will extend to spaghettification. After all, spaghettification is a natural result of defenestration via air lock when near a gravitational singularity. In fact, I believe I've seen the practice already established on a few of the more unique sci-fi shows.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Science Sunday VII: Photonic Propulsion

If you're feeling a bit claustrophobic on our current earth-sphere, I have some good news: high-speed space travel just got a little bit more feasible.

The photon is a strange particle (or wave!) Though it has no mass, it can still impart momentum. When you turn on a light, the photons from it collide with you, and actually physically move you. It is not detectable to our senses, but every time photons hit us, they exert a force upon us. Shine a strong enough flashlight on a ball, and it will roll. This is known as radiation pressure (and FYI light is just a form of radiation.) With a strong source of light, such as the sun, and low gravity and friction, such as in the vacuum of space, radiation pressure is a viable means of transportation. This basic effect is the idea behind solar sails, and has already been used in unmanned spacecraft, such as Mariner 10. But that is all old hat.

It has been theoretically proposed that photons, in the form of lasers, can be amplified so that their thrust is greatly increased. In December of 2006, Dr. Young Bae did just that, by building (and publicly demonstrating) the world's first Photonic Laser Thruster (PLT), which amplifies photonic thrust by a factor of 3,000. Not bad for a proto-type. The demonstration paper will be published in the peer-reviewed journal American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), is titled Photonic Laser Propulsion: Proof-of-Concept Demonstration, and will be published later this year. Using several of these photonic thrusters together, spacecraft could achieve speeds of more than 100 km per second. This technology is not far-and-away, it is already present, and is being refined for more efficient use. With current technology, the trip to Mars would take six months. With PLT, it would take one week or less. Given that most of the hazards of interplanetary travel are risky precisely because of the length of the journey (radiation accumulation, bone deterioration, psychological stability), this just doesn't make interplanetary travel more comfortable, it makes it possible. There is still plenty of research and application to be done to be sure, but the deployment of these technologies will now be measured in years rather than generations.

A more practical application of PLT would be to maintain exact satellite formation - by exact, I mean staying within formation to a few nanometers, with the satellites spread out over kilometers. An immediate use of this kind of technology would be to form the next generation of telescope-like devices - satellite formations like this could scour the depths of the universe at many orders of magnitude greater detail than the Hubble telescope - we could detect black holes for the first time, see planets and stars never seen before, and indeed peer into the very origins of the universe. Considering the pictures from Hubble, think of what we could do with several orders of magnitude beyond this:

Of course these satellite formations wouldn't just take pretty pictures; more pragmatically, they would be able to search for rare minerals in asteroids, uncover precise details of our own solar system's planets and moons, and let us prioritize where our other efforts should focus.

And holy $hit, he's also made a lot of progress working on nuclear fusion engines and researching a freakin' matter-antimatter engine. What's next for this guy, an artificial quantum singularity engine?

I think the coolest part of this is that Dr. Bae is not a NASA scientist. He's just a really smart guy who loves to invent things, and started his own institute to do so. On his own, he built his amplified photonic thruster - the first in the world - with regular off-the-shelf products. It is becoming more and more clear that in the future it will be individuals and organizations that will lead the way in space exploration as much as it will be nation-states.

For a lengthy interview with Dr. Bae, check out this podcast of the somewhat quirky Space Show. The interview starts at 5:45.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Friday Comedy: Drunk Animals

Continuing on our animal theme, this clip is of African wildlife gorging themselves on alcoholic Marula fruits - they're so... humanlike.

The video is from the 1974 film Animals Are Beautiful People. Thanks to Christian for sending this to me.

Here is a longer version (with morning-after hangovers).

Thursday TED: VI Bonobos

Ok, so it's Friday, and I'm a day late. This week's TED is a good one, and a fun one.

It is often said that the chimpanzee is our closest animal relative. This is partly true - the Bonobo chimp is actually much closer to us than the common chimp. This video takes a look at what Bonobos are capable of learning (on their own - not through training). It's pretty impressive stuff, raises some important questions about the source of intelligence, and will make you smile many a time (if you can get over the cheesy narration.)

Here is more info for anyone curious to know more about Bonobo's scientifically fascinating sexual behaviour. For the repressed moralists who commonly say, "Behaviour X is just not natural!" -- I assure you, the Bonobos engage in behaviour X, and they are in fact a natural species. The list of common Bonobo sexual practices is... creative... to say the least. I must admit, this is the first time I've come across the phrase "penis fencing" as common parlance in a scientific sub-discipline.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Link Round-Up

I haven't had much blogging time this week, but I don't want to neglect you completely... so it's time for a round-up of some links I've found recently:

  1. For every Microsoft application, there is a better quality free one that will not bloat your computer/spy on you/annoy you with poorly animated paper clips. This site lists 27 of them with reviews.
  2. Five simple electronic hacks: make noise cancelling headphones for $20, build your own USB powered cell phone charger, boost your car remote key signal by 50+ feet, make your video camera waterproof for $10, and get your PC to boot up faster. All are cheap and relatively simple to do. Ladies and gentlemen, warm up your soldering guns.
  3. Stateris-UK. You remember Tetris? This is the same idea, but with British counties. Great fun! The first time I played, I finished in six minutes. What's your time? For geography nerds, this stuff is great! The original US Stateris is here. Also check out the versions for Africa and Europe.
  4. On a similar theme, this is an online game where you name as many US Presidents as possible. There are also similar games for naming Shakespeare's plays, US States, US State Capitols, African Nations, and European Nations. You really don't want to know how long I've spent playing these over the past few months. That's right... months.
  5. Not everyone enjoys online educational games though. Take Sherri Shepherd, conservative co-host of the tv show The View. After stating she did not believe in evolution at all, Whoopi Goldberg asked her if she thought the world was round or flat. She said she "never really thought about it." She said she was more concerned with putting food on the table for her family than wondering about stuff like that. Ummm... wow. 1) Rudimentary knowledge and providing for your family are not mutually exclusive. They actually go well together. 2) She is an actress and tv show host for ABC - I'm sure providing food for her family has been a big struggle. 3) How in the world do you get to the age of 40 and not know whether the world is round or flat!?! HOW?! 4) Why does this woman host a tv show?? When Barbara Walters asked her what she would say when her child asks her if the world is round, Shepherd responds, "Baby, we've got to go to a library."Details here, video below.

Cringe. The Stoopid, it burns! The goggles, they do nothing!

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Bunny Blogging: Greedy Connie

Our rabbit Connie eats everything. Everything: sheets of paper, envelope glue, wood, her own droppings, jam and wine labels off of bottles, the leaves off of our indoor rubber tree, telephone wires, other rabbits' shedding fur, mobile phone charger cords, and anything that falls on the floor. Now that list includes foam packaging pellets as well:

I kept hiding this box and she kept finding her way inside of it - by the time I filmed this, she had already eaten about 1/4 of the total pellets over the past week. As you might expect, we're a little concerned about this general trend, and don't know how to stop her. She's quite intelligent, and has learned to climb up and over brick walls (which she uses to raid our neighbours' gardens and visit their pet rabbits), and to jump up shelves - she used the shelf-jumping technique to gorge herself on a bag of carefully placed bird seed in our storage room. She can also chew through steel chicken wire, and open doors that are not fully closed. She knows she is not supposed to do these things, because if you catch her she will thump and dash away, only to reappear and sit on your feet the moment she hears the sound of vegetables being chopped.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Science Sunday VI: More Fun With Cornstarch!

Ah, cornstarch and water. So humble, yet so non-Newtonian. You may remember this video (3rd down) of the great fun that can be had with a swimming pool of cornstarch solution.

But what happens when you combine cornstarch with a vibrator, you ask? I have a video to show you! It gets pretty freaky at the end with all the Fardaday waves and undulating fingers:

Although I have no expertise in understanding how all this works, or why it occurs, my understanding is that it is essentially caused by cornstarch's properties to act as both a liquid and a solid, becoming less liquidy and more solid as greater stress is applied to it. That's what allows you to run across a swimming pool of it, but to swim gently in it as well.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Weekend Comedy: Freudian Harry Potter Edition

I love the Harry Potter series, and enjoyed reading all umpteen books. Ok, so that doesn't exactly make me unique, but I would like to begin this post with that stake innoculator.

I found this excellent, and, ahem, shall we say... Freudian interpretation of the first Harry Potter book, all by replacing the letter 'd' with the letter 'g' in one word throughout the book. Marginally not safe for work, though a legitimate exercise in the psychology of hidden psychosexual symbolism in literature.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Thursday TED: V (Theory of Brain and Artificial Intelligence)

This week's TED talk is by Jeff Hawkins, a big mover behind the handheld computing industry, and a neuroscientist to boot. He asks why is it that after studying the brain for so many decades we still don't have a theory of how it really works? Hawkins says the time is ripe for a paradigm shift in understanding the brain, and once that occurs, artificial intelligence will not be much further down the road.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Update - and Cute Pictures

Sorry for the light posting; things are starting to pick up around here. The university term officially starts at the beginning of October, and that's when most of my teaching will begin. We still don't have our teaching schedules yet - and 19 days till term starts. (Less than that if you include the fresher's orientation/team building stuff in the week before.)

But in the meantime, I'm starting to teach at Maynard again this week (equivalent to high school Juniors). I'll be running the course twice this year, which will be nice. Most of the lessons are already prepared from last year, so it's not too much extra work. I quite enjoy it; they're always so keen.

And of course these next few weeks are the time to finalize preparations for the studies I want to conduct over the year. One is already churning through the ethics committee, and I'm writing up the ethics proposal for another one. And there is the constant background hum of reading journal articles, which is the literary form of chamomile tea, mildly good for you and pleasantly soporific.

The biggest event on the horizon is Green Week. Starting in early November, it is going to be a week (plus) of green related events culminating in the Green Fair on 9 Nov. We've got about 20 different events throughout the week, and about 20 different organizations slated for the Fair. Last year we had about 15 organizations, about 400 attenders, and not much budget. This year we have a 4-digit budget (six digits if you include the pence!), have been planning since Spring, and are hoping for a few thousand attenders. We've got a great team of planners working on it, but its a fair bit of work no matter how its sliced. I'll be very happy when it's done - both because it will be a great, fun event, and because I can stop thinking about planning for it for a little while!

I don't show much cute stuff on here, but why not shake things up a bit? Maybe these will brighten your day.

These baby hedgehogs were orphaned and are being raised in a shelter with the help of their surrogate "mom."

These baby mallard ducks were found abandoned in the ocean off of Devon in July before being rescued. And we think the ocean is big.

What do you get for a walrus on its birthday?

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Canterbury: Pictures and Video

I got back from Canterbury just before midnight on Saturday night. The conference was good, but not exceptional, which is what I was told it would be. A few talks stood out: Peter Hegarty rocked with his presentation about how bias creeps into research through the use of "typical" exemplars. Michelle Ryan had a great overview of the Glass Cliff findings, with a focus on people's reactions to it. There were plenty of other good ones too, and a few boring ones as would be expected. But it was a good medium-scale event for my first "real" conference. I'm looking forward to going (and hopefully presenting!) at a much bigger one in Croatia next June.

The University of Kent is subtly bizarre in ways that are difficult to explain. It seems like a good school, but something just felt a bit strange about it. The campus itself is beautiful. The room numbering system is Byzantine - I never did work it out completely. The en suite dorm bathrooms are like big showers with a toilet and sink inside them - and no barrier between the shower tile and the bedroom carpet, so water will seep into the bedroom if you turn the shower on all the way. But the upside: they gave us University of Kent branded soap and body wash (why doesn't Exeter do this?!) The University of Kent branded one-use disposable bath mat was a little weird. I think one thing that disoriented me is hearing so many American voices in a quintessentially English place. Parallel universes... slowly... colliding...

My favourite experience was at breakfast in the cafeteria. I asked one of the workers if she knew what food was vegan. Looking helpful, she said she would check with the cook and be right back. A few minutes later she returned. "The beans and tomatoes are vegan, of course. The vegetarian sausages are vegan as well. Unfortunately the potato wedges have onion in them though" she said sincerely.

"Oh, eh, well, thanks for checking."

The cooks also cut the crusts off of my vegan sandwiches (and none of the others.) Not sure what that was about. The complete non-comprehension of veganism was almost like being back in Georgia. The food was tasty though.

The conference ended on Friday afternoon, so I headed to Kipps Hostel for the evening. It wasn't bad, especially for £15 for the night. I headed to a pub to meet a friend/fellow-conference-goer to watch the rugby game. It was my first time watching rugby. All I can say is that I've never seen that much blood coming out of peoples' ears. During the day Saturday I wandered around the city of Canterbury. It's really the perfect size to see by foot in a day. There are plenty of things to see, many for free. Here are a few pictures:

The domjohn behind the city walls is the mound that was the basis of the original Normal motte and bailey castle. It was originally a Roman burial mound. Now it is a public garden with a panoramic view of the city.

The city walls were originally Roman, but have been rebuilt a few times through the millennia. Like most of the stonework in the city, they are made of cloven black flint river cobbles. Canterbury gave in to William the Conqueror without a fight, so they didn't see action then, but they did successfully fend off a number of Viking raids in the centuries before. Now a highway encircles the area where Vikings and Saxons fought and died for control of the city.

St. Mildred's church, near the castle ruins, was built by the Saxons before the Norman conquest.

St. Mildred's again. The flint cobbles were gorgeous. They are glassy black, almost like obsidian, and surprisingly sharp.

Greyfriars, the oldest Franciscan building in the UK, is perched upon the river Stour. It's small and humble, but the gardens were some of the best in the city.

I found most of my lunch in the Greyfriar gardens actually: hazelnuts, beech masts, blackberries, haw berries, apples, pears, and sprigs of rosemary and peppermint. This juicy pear was soon to be eaten.

This sycamore tree near Greyfriars had a trunk about the size of a small car, shaped like a mound. There was no sign to say there was anything special about the tree, but it looked to be one of the oldest in the city.

Just a few feet from the sycamore tree is the River Stour, down which you can see the massive Westgate Tower. You can see cars driving through the main archway between the towers.

Canterbury Cathedral was founded by St. Augustine at about 600 CE. As you probably know, it is the centre of the Anglican church. You probably didn't know you can buy the Archbishop's own special orange marmalade in the gift shop for £3.50.

The cathedral again. It was impressive, but not head and shoulders above other cathedrals I've seen. There are several shots of the inside in the video below.

The castle keep's ruins were desolate. I spent about 30 minutes there and did not see a single other person (on a Saturday in good weather.)

The castle again. There are more thorough views in the video.

I took this video of Canterbury with my regular digital camera (ie decent camera, but not meant for taking high quality videos). In order, it includes the city walls, Grayfriars, the Cathedral, the town centre, and the castle ruins. I did the editing in a hurry, so it is a bit of a rush-job. The music is from Sigur Rós' Taak.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Off to Kent

I'll be leaving early tomorrow for Canterbury, Kent, for a British Psychological Society conference. It should be hella killa. You know what they say about us social psychologists - we put the social in social psychology!

I'll be back on Saturday night - till then, blogging will be light. That's Canterbury Cathedral to the right. In a few days, I'll let you know if it actually looks like that, and I'll share any tales I pick up.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Science Sunday V: Water and Whiskey

Here's a neat little trick with a killa soundtrack.

Although there was no explanation with the video, I think I can hazard a guess: when the plastic card is placed between the two glasses, the card is moved to the edge, allowing a very small gap. The gap is small enough to allow the liquid through, but the surface tension of the liquid prevents the liquid from spilling. As the sliver of water and whiskey mingle, the whiskey rises to the top, because alcohol has a much lower density than water. After 10 minutes, the two liquids have switched glasses. If you could turn the glasses upside down again without disturbing them, the water and whiskey will change back.

How To: Make Spiced Berry Cordial

Winter still seems a long way off, but this is the time of year to pick the berries you'll need to make all kinds of great Christmas concoctions. Spiced berry cordial is probably just about the best Christmas drink you can have - it warms the body and spirit like nothing else (especially with a shot of brandy or rum!) I've just made some berry cordial today, and it is fantastic stuff. I took pictures while doing it to illustrate each of the steps; click on any picture to enlarge it.

700 g fresh blackberries
300 g fresh elderberries
500 g sugar
20 cloves
2 cinnamon sticks

2 large pots
fine mesh sieve
muslin cloth/cheese cloth
siphon or funnel
empty screw-top wine bottles
pectic enzyme/pectolase (optional)
potassium/sodium metabisulfite (optional)

  1. First you need to pick the berries. You could buy them of course, but that would be expensive, and not really the point of making your own cordial. Go find some in the woods - there are absolutely loads of berries out there. I think the optimal mix is 7:3 blackberries to elderberries but you could use mulberries, currants, blueberries, or any other kind you want. In a good spot you can pick 1000 g or more in less than an hour.
  2. Remove all unripe/overripe fruit, and any stalks or leaves. Rinse berries clean in a sieve or collandar.
  3. Put berries in a large pot, and fill the pot with water to just cover the berries. Cook over medium heat to reduce the level of liquid to the desired thickness. A potato masher or fork may be used to help crush the berries. Stir occasionally.
  4. The longer you cook it the more concentrated your cordial will be. Usually you will want to cook off between 20% and 40% of the original level of liquid. This will take about 30 to 60 minutes.Once you have cooked down the berries, let them cool.
  5. At this point, you may wish to add 1 teaspoon of pectic enzyme/pectolase per 1000 g of berries. This helps dissolve the berries and extract all of the juicy goodness out of them. Pectic enzyme is cheap, and is available in any homebrew shop. Dissolve the pectolase in a small amount of water and stir in. Whether you have added pectolase or not, cover your pot and let it sit overnight.
  6. The next day, pour the mix out of one pot and into a fine-mesh sieve, draining into another pot below. Be careful not to splash juice everywhere!
  7. Once the sieve is well drained, put the contents of the sieve into muslin or cheese cloth. Squeeze thoroughly to extract all of the remaining juice. You can extract virtually all of the juice this way. Compost the contents of the cloth.The cloth may be washed for reuse.
  8. Now we will add sugar and spices to the juice. You may vary the proportions for your taste, but high levels of sugar will keep it from spoiling, and taste normal once the cordial is properly diluted. If you decide to use low levels of sugar/no sugar, you will need to pasteurize the bottles once done (not covered here). I add (per 1000 g berries) 500 g of sugar, 20 cloves, and 2 cinnamon sticks. Allspice, nutmeg, and ginger would also be good additions. Add and stir until the sugar is dissolved.
  9. Heat juice to boiling. Simmer for a few minutes to infuse juice with spices. Let cool. If you want to drink immediately, you can do so now. Follow steps for bottling the remainder below:
  10. The bottles should be sterilized before being filled. You can do this by soaking them with a mild bleach solution, boiling them for a few minutes, or rinsing the insides with a metabisulfite solution (from homebrew shops). If you have metabisulfite, that is the easiest method. Be sure to sterilize the caps and siphon/funnel too.
  11. Once the mix has cooled to a non-scalding temperature, use a siphon or funnel to pour the cordial into the sterilized screw-top wine bottles. This can be messy, so cover anything that should not get sticky red juice on it! Distribute spices evenly between bottles.
  12. Store bottles upright in a cool, dark location. Cordial will keep for at least a year, possibly much longer if you sterilized/pasteurized it properly. The sugar and cloves are natural preservatives. Refrigerate once opened.
  13. To drink, pour a small amount in a mug and add hot water and rum/brandy if desired. Dilute cordial to taste, usually about 1 to 5. Delicious.What you see to the right (1 liter of cordial) was made from 1000 g of berries. 1500 g of berries would have filled the two bottles completely. When diluted, you can get about 10 to 20 mugs of cordial per bottle.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Larry Craig Meets Avenue Q

You are probably aware of the recent scandal with Republican Senator Larry Craig from Idaho. He was arrested for soliciting a male undercover police officer for sex in a busy airport public restroom, pled guilty, and now is in denial/breakdown about the whole thing. It's really a very sad affair, especially considering the man's political career has been largely built on publicly hating GLBT people.

The blessed Internet has given us the ability of instant commentary and media mashability. Here is Larry Craig on Avenue Q, the Sesame Street-esque Broadway musical about real-world problems (video from Michael Jenson at AfterElton and AmericaBlog):

Although I've not seen Avenue Q, it sounds great. This video is, ehh, interesting (marginally not safe for work).

Seriously though, just how many conservative Republicans are really just self-haters unable to cope or deal with their own sexuality? Democrats have sex scandals too, but they are 1) boringly simple (ie, consensual non-kinky sex between adults) and 2) Democrats do not claim to be the morality police who have a duty to legislate what Americans can and cannot do in their own homes.

Political memory is short, so here is a partial list of recent bizarre sex scandals by conservative leaders, all of whom have made a public career out of persecuting those they consider "morally deviant." These are the people who would run our country.

  • US Senator Larry Craig, (R-ID), pled guilty to soliciting sex from an undercover police officer in a men's public restroom in the Minneapolis airport. (2007)
  • Glenn Murphy, Jr., 33 year-old president of the Young Republican National Federation under investigation for sexually assaulting a sleeping 22 year-old man. (2007)
  • State Rep. Bob Allen, (R-FL), offered to pay $20 to a male undercover police officer for oral sex in a public restroom in a park. Allen claimed that he felt intimidated by "a pretty stocky black guy" and offered money and oral sex as a way to avoid an attack by the undercover officer and the other "black guys" in the park (who were also undercover officers.) You cannot make that up. (2007)
  • Ted Haggard, conservative mega-church pastor and former leader of the National Association of Evangelicals (with 30 million members), and regular spiritual advisor to George W. Bush has had a long time history of meth binges and use of gay prostitutes. (2006)
  • US Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) built his career legislating against pedophiles. That's reasonable enough, until it came out that he was a pedophile himself. He sent sexually abusive emails to a male under-age congressional page, and later many other minors came forward to disclose inappropriate behaviour from Rep. Foley. Then it came out that other Republican leaders had known about it for a number of years, and had taken no other action than to warn Foley to stop. Foley's defense? He was an alcoholic who had been drunk when he had made the sexually inappropriate overtures. Oh, well that's ok then. (2006)
  • Jim West, Republican Mayor of Spokane was charged with multiple counts of child molestation and abusing his political power to receive sexual favours from young men. (2005)
  • Jeff Gannon/James Guckert, a White House "journalist" from a non-existent news organization called Talon News. With no journalism credentials, Gannon was given press passes from the White House, where he was known for asking suspiciously Bush-friendly questions such as "how are you going to work with people [Democrats] who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?" Suspecting he was planted there, real journalists found he was also a gay prostitute nicknamed Bulldog and had published many nude pictures of himself online, many with a gay military motif. According to Secret Service records, Gannon/Guckert often checked in to the White House on days in which there were no press conferences, and appears to have spent the night at the White House on multiple occasions (see the logged visits here). What happened on these occasions is not known. (2005)

The party of family values.

Friday, 31 August 2007

Weekend Comedy: Torn

Mimes have a pretty bad reputation, but David Armand pulls it off well. And Natalie Imbruglia isn't so bad herself.

This is from Amnesty International's Secret Policeman's Ball, an annual benefit to raise awareness and funds for international human rights issues. Starting in 1976 as a collaboration between Amnesty and Monty Python, these shows initiated other comedy benefits like Comic Relief, and inspired many comedians and musicians (like Bob Geldoff and Bono) to become active in campaigns for human rights.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Thursday TED: IV (Education, Intelligence, and Creativity)

The note above has been floating around the Internet for about a year now, and although it is probably a hoax, it is most notable because it is so believable. I've witnessed similar instances in high school many times. I've heard it said there are three types of police officers: those who do it because it pays the bills, those who do it to make the world a better place, and those who like the power a little too much. I believe it is the same with teachers. The embittered teachers are only a symptom though; the sad fact is our education system is very broken.

This week's TED is by Sir Ken Robinson about our education system, in particular as to how we conceive of intelligence and creativity. Let's watch:

Ken is right. Our current system is set up so that the ideal student will be trained to be a mini professor. By luck, I am the kind of person our current education system was designed for (and by), and I have personally benefited greatly from this. It's my opinion that professors are pretty neat-o, but professors are still only parts, and parts are only useful when well-integrated into a greater whole. Our current understanding of intelligence - in terms of how our societal institutions define, measure, and encourage it - is staggering in its limitation and its folly.

For more thoughts on the nature of intelligence, and how it is (ill)defined, this short essay by Isaac Asimov is a good starting place.

On a related note, Joshua has recently blogged about this article in Time, entitled Are We Failing Our Geniuses?, which takes a look at those who are currently considered our most gifted - and how they make up 20% of current high school drop outs. Truly, our public education is a shrine to literate mediocrity.

Update: Joshua has a reply to this post.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

The Mind, the Mushroom, and the Research

About one year ago, an intriguing - and very rare - study was published by researchers at John Hopkins University's Medicine department. It was the world's very first scientifically controlled, double-blind investigation into the effects of psilocybin - the psychoactive ingredient in what are colloquially known as magic mushrooms. Psilocybin had been studied before, but never in such a systematically controlled way, and virtually not at all in recent decades.

The lead researcher Dr. Roland Griffiths, professor of behavioral biology and professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins is no light-weight. His CV is here, and you will note that this study is his 239th journal publication. The goal of this particular study was to investigate the potential of psilocybin as a therapeutic agent, and to better understand the functioning of consciousness, sensory perception, and what may be termed mystical experiences. The participants were 36 well-educated adults with no personal or family history of drug use or mental illness.

What did the researchers find?

In the study, more than 60 percent of subjects described the effects of psilocybin in ways that met criteria for a “full mystical experience” as measured by established psychological scales. One third said the experience was the single most spiritually significant of their lifetimes; and more than two-thirds rated it among their five most meaningful and spiritually significant. Griffiths says subjects liken it to the importance of the birth of their first child or the death of a parent.

Two months later, 79 percent of subjects reported moderately or greatly increased well-being or life satisfaction compared with those given a placebo at the same test session. A majority said their mood, attitudes and behaviors had changed for the better. Structured interviews with family members, friends and co-workers generally confirmed the subjects’ remarks.

In the next few months and years, expect a flurry of follow-up publications. The original research team is currently publishing a 1 year review of the research participants (no word yet on the exact release date). The Griffiths team is also conducting a trial of patients suffering from advanced cancer-related depression or anxiety, as well as designing studies to test a role for psilocybin in treating drug dependence. Researchers at the University of Arizona, UCLA, and Harvard (to name a few) have begun to study psilocybin as a result of this study.

This development is groundbreaking for a number of reasons:
  • No real scientific research has been conducted on hallucinogens in the last 40 years. We don't really understand how they work, or what effects they have on their users. Hopefully that will change.
  • This opens up an entire new range of methods for investigating the fundamentals of how the human mind works. Philosophical questions of the nature of consciousness, mysticism, and self-concept may be addressed from an entirely new scientific approach.
  • New treatments for depression, bipolar disorder, drug dependence and other mental illnesses may be available. Anecdotal evidence is very promising in this area, but empirical research is the only conclusive way to test and develop new treatments.
  • Government drug policy may finally be adjusted to reflect realistic potentials for abuse. Psilocybin has been condemned by many governments; in the US, it is ranked as a Schedule I drug, along with cocaine and heroin, and possession carries similarly severe penalties of lengthy prison sentences and substantial fines. However, psilocybin is non-toxic (ie, physical overdose is not possible), it is not physically addictive, and there is not a single recorded death caused directly by psilocybin. By contrast, in 1993, tobacco killed 434,000 Americans (20% of all premature US deaths) and alcohol killed 125,000 (Mathias, 1994.)

What an exciting time to be a psychologist!

As the relevant publications are released in the coming months, I will provide summaries of the findings here on Exeterra.

The full research report is available here:

Griffiths, R. R., Richards, W. A., McCann, U. & Jesse, R. (2006). Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial systained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology, 187, 268-283.

This is a good, accessible press release written without jargon.

And here is commentary by other distinguished researchers in related fields, originally printed in the same edition of Psychopharmacology.

Q & A with the lead researcher, Professor Griffiths.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Mythbusting Monday VI: How Psychics Work

Although we consider many things to be proven - such as the fact that you and I exist - it is vexingly difficult to disprove anything. Can you disprove the existence of unicorns and leprechauns? No, the best we can do is show that there is no support for their existence, but we cannot disprove them. It is always possible that they may exist in some way we cannot detect, improbable as it seems. Likewise, we cannot disprove psychic abilities, but we can demonstrate that there is no support for them. Most of my readers will probably already take that as given, so let's take a look at something a little more interesting: how psychics work.

Psychics use a variety of techniques that borrow from the magicians' repertoire as well as capitalizing on humans' many cognitive biases. In fact, there is a branch of stage magicians called mentalists who perform "psychic" readings while freely admitting that what they do is good-natured chicanery. First, let's take a look at the well-known mentalist Derren Brown as he performs a "seance":

Spooky! But not as spooky as the creeps who use these techniques to exploit vulnerable, grieving people who are desperate for answers. So, how is it done?

Cold Reading: This is a technique where a combination of highly probable guesses and cue reading is used to give the impression that the reader knows something they could not have possibly known. The reader starts (let's say in a seance where there is a large room full of people) by saying, for example, "John, I have a message for you from an old man who loved you dearly." Most large gatherings of people will include a John, and nearly all adults were once close to an old man who is now deceased. The reader then watches the individual's reactions to their probings, and uses very slight reactions to hone in on specifics. A skilled reader can use cold reading very convincingly.

Importantly, not all psychics are intentional fraudsters. Many believe they truly do have paranormal powers to know what other people are thinking. It is most likely that these people are unusually gifted in reading social cues, and have a special ability for reading facial twitches and tones of voice, rather than supernatural powers. As the psychic makes likely guesses, they will become increasingly confident in their "powers" aided by confirmation bias, selective memory, and confabulation.

Wanna know something cool? Even animals have been documented to use a kind of cold reading. Check out Clever Hans, the horse that could do arithmetic.

The Forer Effect: A component of cold reading, but also used in horoscopes and dubious personality tests, the Forer Effect is a cognitive bias where people are likely to interpret statements or predictions as having particular personal relevance. In fact, these statements often apply to just about everybody. In 1948, psychologist Bertram Forer provided research participants each with a "unique personality analysis" which they were asked to rate in terms of accuracy from 1 to 5. The average rating was 4.26, but the "unique personality analysis" was always the same:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

The analysis above was created by combining snippets of several horoscopes. The effect has been duplicated by other researchers many times, with most people claiming it to be 80% to 90% accurate.

Let's take another look at Derren, this time using the Forer Effect in a cold reading:

Hot Reading: This is when the reader uncovers private information about the target beforehand, and later uses this to their advantage. Many of the tv-psychics do this by placing microphones in the waiting room. The people who go on those shows usually have particular issues on their mind they are focused on, and will speak to them with other guests while waiting to appear. Then they are shocked, shocked I tell you when the psychic knows of these private concerns. Faith healers have been known to use prayer cards filled in before the show to know the particular afflictions of the sick (through God's grace, of course.) When combined with cold reading, the effect can be very convincing.

Let's take a look at how James Randi, noted mentalist and skeptic, debunks Uri Gellar and Peter Popoff who both used hot reading as well as cold reading (though Uri also uses a lot of standard stage magic.)

Randi has offered a $1,000,000 prize to anyone who can demonstrate psychic abilities under controlled conditions in a lab. To date, there have been over 150 applicants and no winners. You'd think all those psychics working at the 1-900 numbers and the beyond-the-grave tv shows would put their skills to more profitable applications - like taking up Randi on his offer, or predicting stock market trends, or lotto numbers. But no, they're content to have your money instead.

Sunday, 26 August 2007

It's Just Like a Mini Mawl

Normally I'm not quite so eager to jump on the viral bandwagon, but this made me laugh more than usual. Several times in the past 24 hours whilst otherwise engaged in conversation or activity I would burst into laughter thinking of the Mini Mawl.

A significant portion of my family is from Montgomery. I'll have to ask them if it is usually like this down there.

Hat tip to James for finding this one.

Science Sunday IV: Fun with Numbers!

When I first came to the UK, it seemed that the world worked differently. Ever so slightly, the laws of physics seemed altered. The weather seemed to be determined by different laws. Household appliances functioned through different properties. People's social understandings and interactions appeared out of phase. In ways that are hard to describe, I seemed to be in an ever-so-different parallel universe.

Of course, both the UK and US societies had developed different techniques and methods of doing things, ignoring many of the other potential options. We choose some paradigms and forget others. In some ways, this is so fundamentally obvious, it is banal to speak of it. But yet, when it is experienced first-hand, it still seems bizarre and surprising.

The same principle applies to our understanding of numbers and mathematics. Our schemas and paradigms of what numbers are, how they function, is very limited. I have already written about our common shortcoming in understanding repeating decimals, and this week, we have a video of how any multiplication problem can be solved with pencil and paper using only line drawings and no calculations:

Weekend Comedy: Mocking Homeland Security Edition

Most people realize that the Department of Homeland Security is little more than a politically expedient joke - but let's not let it go to waste - we can turn it into a series of literal jokes instead of just figurative jokes! As notes, the Department of Homeland Security warning signs are so vague, they could mean anything - that means it's caption time! Here are a few of my favourites: (remember these are real DHS signs - somebody thought these were helpful illustrations for what to do in an emergency.)

After exposure to radiation it is important to consider that you may have mutated to gigantic dimensions: watch your head.

If a door is closed, karate chop it open.

People, animal corpses and the biohazard symbol are all at risk of being sucked into the time-tunnel vortex.

If you spot a terrorist arrow, pin it against the wall with your shoulder.

Try to absorb as much of the radiation as possible with your groin region. The current world record is 5 minutes, 12 seconds.

Visit to see the whole set.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Rob in the News Again

As Earthchick notes, her son and my brother, after being involved in an accident where he was buried alive, is in the news again in a short segment with Detroit's Fox affiliate. Now I know local news in general and Fox affiliates in particular have a certain reputation, which is mostly deserved, but this segment is not very sensationalized, and does not feature an irrelevant let's-bury-a-reporter- so-you-can-know-what -being-pseudoburied-in- sand-looks-like demonstration like the last one on CBS. The Fox video does however feature an irrelevant this-is-what-a- completely-different-shape- and-size-sand-hole- looks- like-even-though-it's-not-related- to-the-story illustration. No one in the family is made to look a fool though, and that's what counts though. ;)

Earthchick would like to point out that the top she is wearing in this segment is one she made herself.

Background story here (short) and here (full).

Thursday TED: III (Happiness)

This week we'll be taking a look at a presentation by Harvard social Psychologist Dan Gilbert about happiness, specifically something he calls synthetic happiness. I don't know that I would agree with every single one of Gilbert's points, but he does nail many issues squarely on the head: namely, we do a very bad job at knowing what will make us happy. This is, in my opinion, one the more thought-provoking TED presentation... but then, it's probably no surprise that I'm biased towards social psychology.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

How To: Boost Your Wifi Signal (For Free)

Many people have trouble with their wireless signal, particularly if their computer is far from their router, or if they live in a nuclear fallout shelter. You can buy a wifi booster for a hefty chunk of change, or you can do it for free with a parabolic reflector that outperform the commercial boosters. I've tried this at home, and it actually works very well. You can expect about 9 to 12 decibels of boost.

Click to download the antenna plans.

It took me a total of about 15 minutes from start to finish. Because I do not have a printer at home, I just traced the image from my screen on to a regular sheet of paper (lightly, with a pencil). Then I cut that out, and traced the paper cutout onto some cardboard, cut out the cardboard, glued the foil to the card, and it was all done. The cardboard used to make the antenna is actually from an old beer box.

Also keep in mind that if your wireless receiver is external to your computer, you can put another parabolic reflector on that to increase its sensitivity. Using this method you can easily double or triple your signal.

There is an urban legend that during the space race both the Americans and the Russians sought to overcome the difficult of writing with a pen in a zero-gravity environment. NASA spent millions of dollars to develop a pressurized pen that could write without gravity, and even in a vacuum. The Russians brought a pencil. This story is not true, but the point is valid. Simple, low-tech solutions are not only cheaper and easier than the snazzy, expensive solution, but they often work better too.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Science Sunday III: Better Living Through Chemistry (Thermite!)

This week's video is about thermite. What is thermite? It's white hot fun, that's what it is! A thermite reaction is when aluminum is oxidized by another oxidized metal (like rust). This produces, aluminum oxide, pure iron, and heat. A lot of heat. 4000 (F) degrees of heat.

Shall we watch a video?

When used in small amounts, thermite is very useful in welding, particularly in areas where it is difficult to lug more bulky welding equipment. Railroads use it extensively to weld together sections of rail. It's also used to weld together thick electrical wires. In WW2 it was used frequently as a quick and quiet way to disable enemy artillery - put a dab of thermite on the end of the artillery barrel, and it welds shut in seconds with no loud noises or explosion.

Of course, this is not an experiment for the kitchen sink. In fact, it's probably best not to try this one at home - this can be very dangerous if you do not take the appropriate safety precautions.