Friday, 30 March 2007

"Tea, Earl Grey, Hot!"

Anyone who has watched Star Trek will remember the replicators that could make nearly any object materialize through a simple voice command.

While that is still lightyears away, we're getting much closer than one might think.

A new device can create 3 dimensional objects at home. These objects can be made of plastic, metal, and other materials and can be produced in a matter of minutes. It's like a 3 dimensional printer that can "print" anything you have the schematics for. You could make an action figure of yourself, "print" some new candle holders, or some replacement parts for your washing machine. The way it works is by a large number of very small nozzles that spray the plastic/metal/etc in a heated, liquid state, much like a printer sprays ink. Once a layer of material is cool and solid, a new layer can be sprayed on top of it, and so on, until the full figure is formed. At first this may seem neat, but trivial. When you think about it, it really has the potential to turn the entire manufacturing and retail industries upside down. Who would ever need to buy toys if you can just create them to whatever desing you want? Just download what you want, and go. Break a small piece of your car? "Print" a new one. Want a new set of silverware? Make some instantly! The technology is still young, but will undoubtedly improve very quickly in quality and affordability. In twenty years, I imagine these will be as universal in households as computers or microwaves. File sharing networks will probably carry more design schematics than music files. It would also seem to threaten the jobs of millions of people, especially in economies like China, which is largely based on producing cheap plastic shapes. It may sound hyperbolic, but I think a device like this will have as much impact on our lives as computers themselves.

Original story is from The Guardian.

In Michigan

I arrived in Michigan Wednesday afternoon, after more than 24 hours of travelling. Highlights of the journey:

1) I was riding the train on Tuesday night from Exeter to London, so I could make it to Heathrow airport on time Tuesday morning. At about 10 pm in the small rural train station of Yeoville, over 100 teenagers, maybe 150 boarded the train (it was a small, 3 car train) and occupied every seat and standing space. They were all very, very drunk, most with large bottles of liquor, alcopops, 2 or 3 litre bottles of cider, or 24-pack boxes of beer. They mostly looked 14 to 16 years old, and did what drunk teenagers usually do: laugh, shout, sing very loudly, fight, spill their drinks, pee on the seats, etc. After about 15 minutes, they all got off, 2 stops down the line. It was an... interesting event in a mostly sleepy train journey. I have to wonder who bought them hundreds of pounds of alcohol though.

2) At Heathrow, I boarded the plane at about 9:15 am. About 30 minutes after we were supposed to take off, the pilot announced the plane had broken a part, and they would have to fix it. Another 30 minutes passed, and the pilot said it could not be fixed, so instead they were going to make the flight anyway, but they would have to do it at a lower altitude. Because all of the low altitude spots on the normal flight path were taken, instead we would be flying over Iceland and Greenland. At low altitude. While missing some semi-essential part. I never felt at risk or like we were in danger, but it was a pretty comical situation. Unfortunately I could not see out the window to see Iceland or Greenland, which would have been pretty cool.

Anyway, this is what it might have looked like if I had been by a window. It's also what Michigan feels like for about 6 months of the year.


For anyone who ever played the original Nintendo, watching this stop-motion lego animation will be one minute of your life very well spent.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Michigan, Michigan State


I'm heading to Michigan today, and I'll stay there for about 3 weeks. A chunk of my family lives there, including these two little buggers, eh, I mean brothers:

That's Little Buddha, above. And this is Tiny Dancer, below:

Tiny Dancer is the one that's not a cat. Pictures were kindly stolen from their mom's (my step-mom's) blog, which is here (for knitting) and here (for life simplification). I'm really looking forward to seeing everybody again, but also getting a break from work as well. Of course, it won't really be a break, as I'll still have readings to do, and I'll have to do some work online, but it will be much more relaxed. But it will be a nice length for a visit, and my friend CK will be visiting from Georgia. He is one of the characters from this video, but I won't tell you which one. Just watch the whole thing, and try to avoid any retinal burning.

Since there aren't any trains that go from Exeter to London in time for my flight (which is Wednesday morning) I'll be spending tonight (Tuesday) in Heathrow airport. I've done it in Gatwick twice now, but not Heathrow yet. Should be fun!

Sunday, 25 March 2007

The Three Sisters

Our next installment in the gardening series focuses on what many native Americans called The Three Sisters. Those are, of course, corn, beans and squash. These three plants not only make a mean Thanksgiving meal, they also benefit each other by growing next to each other. The corn stalks act as poles for the beans to climb. The beans, being legumes, add nitrogen to the soil instead of removing it, which helps feed the corn and the squash. The squash's large leaves spread out to cover the bare soil around the corn plants, which keeps the soil from drying out and also prevents weeds from growing, helping both the corn and the beans.

Mandan Red Corn
Zea mays

Yes, I will probably be the only person in Exeter trying to grow corn in my very small (by US standards) English garden. But with corn like this, who could resist? It's deep red hue calls to me, begging to be germinated. This particular variety is the traditional corn grown by the Mandan Indians of North Dakota. The stalks only grow to 4 or 5 feet, which will help it stay upright in the windy weather. I'm not sure what I'll actually do with it once I've grown it. Some will be eaten fresh, but much will be dried. I might try making some red corn meal out of it. Red corn bread would be pretty cool.

Black Seeded Blue Lake Pole Beans
Phaseolous vulgaris

These are some of the best green beans I've had, and have done excellently both in Georgia and England. They climb from 6 to 8 feet, and are very prolific. They grow faster than we can eat them. Fortunately, if not eaten fresh, great dried black beans mature inside the pods.

Delicata Squash
Cucurbita pepo

Many of the readers of this blog may remember eating this particular squash at Thanksgiving '06, roasted, hollowed out, and stuffed with wild rice. Although asking "what is your favourite winter squash?" is a bit like asking "which one of your children do you love more?" I would say this one is up there. And Butternut. And Acorn. And Winter Dumpling. But especially Delicata.

Paint Dry Bean
Phaseolous vulgaris

"Wait, you said three sisters, not six!" Yes, I know. I won't actually be planting these next three kinds of beans with the corn or the squash, but I had to fit them in somewhere. Anyway, they are not climbing varieties, so they would get shaded out by the corn. I'll plant these Paint variety of beans in amongst the lettuces, to boost the fertility, and to keep a good pollination distance from the Blue Lakes above (I save the seeds for replanting.)

Pawnee Shell Bean
Phaseolous vulgaris

Another non-climber, and beautifully speckled. Probably the most productive of the three non-climbing beans. These would be very pretty in jewelry, if one were into that kind of thing. Me, I think I'll just eat them. They keep their patterning when cooked, and so look very decorative in soups. I'll grow these in the front yard to avoid cross polination with the others.

Jacob's Cattle Bean
Phaseolous vulgaris

Probably my favourite dry bean of all time, but not as productive as the others. It's very tempting to add play-doh horns and tails to them. I'll be growing these on the roof of my office building to avoid cross-pollination with the other bean varieties. Unfortunately, they lose their patterning when cooked. Perhaps their best use is in a diorama of a cattle drive.

Friday, 23 March 2007

Friday Bunny Blogging - Chockas Edition

For those of you new to the blogosphere, it is traditional that bloggers post pictures of something from their personal interests each Friday. Many put up pictures of their cats, some ponies, others orchids. I will be doing bunnies.

And this, as many of you know, is Chockas:

He was our first bunny, and of regal bearing at that. He's a Netherland Dwarf, and when we got him from the rescue centre, his back left leg was healing from where it had been gnawed to the bone by his brother and had become infected. We cleaned the wound daily, and gave him antibiotics, and he made a full recovery. Rabbits look very passive, but feeding medicine through an oral syringe to a rabbit is about as difficult as getting a cat to swallow pills.

Sometimes, however, he becomes a square.

He can also become a line. Both vertical...

...and horizontal.

If you hold him on his back, he will fall asleep very quickly and his head will slowly fall all the way back.

And like all bunnies, he loves to eat.

Chockas can be difficult to photograph because he is so black and shiny. But he is definitely out most adored, if hardest to photograph, bunny. If our rabbits were children we would tell the others "Why can't you be more like Chockas?" until they would become very insecure.

Perhaps it's best we don't have children.


I know some of you in the States wanted to come and see my MSc graduation, but, because of a few thousands miles of ocean, were not able to. Well, the video of the ceremony is online. The ceremony is quite long, but I walk across the stage at roughly 1:18:20 (you can just scroll ahead to that point.) Many of the people that walk across in the few minutes before and after I do are the people I work with currently.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

MIT to make all university courses free to everyone

MIT has announced that all 1,800 of its courses will be made completely free to anyone to download. If you ever wanted to know anything about anything, especially technical stuff, this is a great opportunity to find out. All 1,800 courses are available here including audio and video copies of lectures, as well as written text. Just load it up to an MP3 player, or burn it to a CD, and listen while you go to work. Yale will be starting a similar program in a few months.

There is a great conflict in cultural, economic, and technological paradigms right now between closed-source systems and open-source system. Closed-source systems involve a limited, centralized, usually hierarchical group of people that make decisions in private. They produce a product or service that is consumed, and critically, the consumer has very little knowledge or control over how that product/service is made or used. Examples include Microsoft’s software, big-label music, and arguably Roman Catholicism. All fashion their products privately, and then produce it to the consumer with heavy restrictions on how it can be used/understood. Tinkering, copying, or questioning are not encouraged, and are often actively suppressed. In each there are producers and receivers, and little interaction between them.

Open-source systems, made viable through new technology, allow the entire public to participate in learning and making decisions. Open-source systems are decentralized, transparent and democratic. Examples include Wikipedia, Google, Mozilla, YouTube, blogs (like this one), free online classes, and arguably Quakerism. Tinkering, questioning, and interactive participation are encouraged. Open-source software systems, like Mozilla, are nearly always more secure than closed ones, like Internet Explorer. Mozilla’s code is open for anyone to see, and so thousands of volunteers have tested its weaknesses and contributed to it to make it stronger. Internet Explorer, on the other hand, relies on secrecy instead of actual strength for security, and is highly vulnerable because of this. In a matter of about two years, Wikipedia went from obscurity to becoming the world’s most cited reference source. Written entirely by volunteers, this open-source encyclopedia boasts 1,699,795 articles (in English; many more articles are in additional languages), and gains hundreds more every day, making it the largest and most comprehensive encyclopedia in the world. A recent study found its science articles were just as accurate as those of Encylopedia Brittanica. There are many parallels with natural selection here: sheltered, homogenous entities will wither away once their protection is removed; robust, transparent, heterogeneous entities will thrive.

Obviously, both closed and open source systems are necessary and both will always be around. But open-source will continue to become more and more dominant. The journey to that point may be quite long and bumpy as ideas of intellectual property are rethought and transformed, but open-source systems will almost always outcompete closed systems given enough time. MIT's decision to make their entire selection of classes available as free to everyone is a great start in applying the value in open-source system, and will surely inspire many to take advantage of it.


Do you think it is a sign of a sodium deficiency to crave eating vegetable stock cubes? They're just so tasty...

Environmental Strategy

I've just finished reading the consulation draft for Exeter's Environmental Strategy. You can too, if you want; just click on the picture. Given it is a government document, I'm pretty impressed with it. It's readable, comprehensive, and ambitious in its plans. The areas where it seems to really be on target are taking centralized, concrete actions. For example, the Council is installing 6 wind turbines on it's offices, along with photovoltaic solar cells, and fitting in green biomass generators at many of the public schools; all city documents will be printed on 100% recycled paper, printed with non-toxic inks; informal city gardens will be landscaped with native plants, grown locally and organically; fertilizer and pesticide use by the city will be heavily reduced; the old shipping canal's locks will be retrofitted with micro hydropower generators; all timber used by the City will be either reclaimed or from sustainably farmed European forests; all bricks will be reclaimed from old sites. There are 60 pages of recommendations like this, all with completion dates and where the funding will come from (most are self-funding; the green power will pay for itself).

Here is where it falls short: communication and public behavioural change. Helping the environment requires action on many fronts: technological adaptations, governmental support, and public awareness, to name a few. But all of these mean little without a change in public behaviour. Everything the Council is doing is terrific, but it is small pertaters without public change as well. This is where social psychology comes into play. Awareness is not the same as behavioural change. There is actually very little relation between the two, as countless psychology studies have found. Knowing doing. For example, the UK government gives money away to people to insulate their homes and take various green actions. It's very easy to get this money, and most people know this resource is available. Yet, they do not act on it. Paradigms and public behaviours must change, and actually affecting these changes is by far the weakest point for all organizations concerned with protecting the environment.

The research I'm doing is aimed at figuring out how these changes in behaviour come about, and understanding which paradigms work and which do not. I'll be doing some studies over the summer with the City Council, and have three that I am now doing in the University. Of course, I'll just be scratching the surface, but it really is surprising that most public awareness/behaviour campaigns are designed intuitively, rather than actually being based on empirical evidence or psychological theory. Without evidence and theory, it's all just shots in the dark. Even if something works, we will not know what, or how. To their credit, the City realizes this is a problem, and is eager to work on it. I'm pretty eager too. Research can be surprisingly exciting, and these projects will be a lot of fun. I'll continue to post updates as they progress.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007


I received word this morning that my application for funding to the Overseas Research Students Awards Scheme (ORSAS) was successful. This is very good news, as it means my PhD is now fully funded. This means I can squander my Fellowship grant on things like food and paying utility bills, instead of putting it all towards tuition as I did this year. Very welcome news indeed.


Two years ago I met a student at Berry who was a refugee from Zimbabwe. His family's land had been seized by armed robbers, and most of the people he had known had also fled or had been killed.
Unfortunately, this is not a rare story. It's estimated that one out of every 200 people in Britain right now is a refugee from Zimbabwe. For a long time, Zimbabwe's long, slow death was mostly unseen in the US and UK, but now that is starting to change.

Recently, the ruler Robert Mugabe arrested most of the leadership of the opposition party and did very bad things to them (I won't post the pictures; they're pretty horrific.) This has been playing on the news quite a bit here; not as much as, say, cricket, but a lot more than ever before. Ten years ago, Zimbabwe was a relatively prosperous nation that exported food and resources to much of southern Africa, and was steadily improving. Today, the average life expectancy is the lowest in the world, 37 years for men and 34 years for women; unemployment is at 80%; and inflation is the highest in the world, often topping 1000% per month. What happened? There was no foreign invader, no civil war, no devastating natural disaster. It was sheer mismanagement by the head of government.

All of this now seems to be converging in the international consciousness. Zimbabwe's neighbours seem to be waking up to the reality that this is a Big Problem, and they will need to do something soon before it becomes Their Problem as well. In Zimbabwe itself, people seem to be losing their fear of opposition, as they have little left to lose. Even more, many of the police seem to increasingly resist being used as tools of political violence, a job most of them did not sign up for.

It is impossible to predict what will happen in the near future with any accuracy, but the feeling is high that something will happen, whether internal revolution, external intervention, or the old bugger just finally dies (he's 83). I think it will definitely get worse before it is over, but the end of Zimbabwe's long national nightmare finally seems imminent.

The upside: an enterprising company in Canada has struck back in the only way it knows how: Mugabe Wipes!

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Lettuce All Start Gardening

Spring is upon us. Except for the snow we got yesterday and the blizzards across the whole of the UK (Scotland got gusts of wind up to 107 mph). But the week before was very Springy and the week after is supposed to be as well. This can only mean one thing: it's time to get gardening. Last week I began germinating many varieties of vegetables and herbs. Now most are up and reaching towards the sky (or in this case, the flourescent lighting in the kitchen.) I've still got six weeks until I can plant out, and much needs to be done in preparation before then. I'll be in Michigan for most of that time, so what shall I do? I'll make the bunnies do the work.

Our backyard is segmented into two sections, separated by chickenwire: one of grass lawn and the other of garden. The idea was that the bunnies could keep the grass lawn in check, and the garden would be safe from the rabbits. It worked beautifully in the summer, but now they have munched the lawn down to about 1/4 of an inch, and it is now mostly moss (but pretty moss.) The "garden" is just grass with a few remaining strawberry and turnip plants. So for the past two weeks I've kept the bunnies only on the garden side, and they have done a great job of trimming the grass down from about 6 inches to about 3. By mid-April they should eat the grass down to the ground, all the time "fertilizing" the ground as they munch (and they're really good at pooing. Sometimes they do it just to show off.) When it is time to plant, I'll have a big patch of nearly-bare pre-fertilized earth, and hopefully the lawn will have had enough of a rest for the bunnies to return to grazing it again. That's the plan at least. Here are Chockas (left) and Connie (right) munching down on the "garden."

As I continue to work on my garden, I'll create short plant profiles to post here because I just know you want to hear all about what kinds of vegetables are going into this year's garden. These aren't just any old vegetables, either. All are organic, and most are very old heirloom varieties. Many were developed in 18th and 19th centuries, and some are medieval in origin. I'll present them by category, my dear reader, so as not to overwhelm you with too many vegetables at once. This week, we'll take a look at one of our most misunderstood set of vegetables: the leafy greens.

Forellenschluss Lettuce
Lactuca sativa

This will be my first time trying Forellenschluss, which is a romaine-type lettuce of Austrian origin. The name means "spotted like a trout's back" in German. I've actually seen this variety in some of the pre-made salad mixes in groceries, and it's quite tasty. So far, these were my most lively germinators, putting up green in less than 48 hours after being sown.

Bronze Arrow Lettuce
Lactuca sativa

Bronze arrow is also a new variety. It's a loose-leaf variety, so I can just take a few leaves from the base when's it's time for a sandwich or a salad, leaving the plant intact. As you may be able to tell, I really like the darker lettuces that have shades of red, deep green, and sienna.

Four Seasons Lettuce
Lactuca sativa

This is, without a doubt, my favourite lettuce of all time. It always grows perkily, and tastes like sweet buttery velvet. In fact, it is a member of a family of lettuces aptly called butterheads. Last year, when I grew quite a bunch of this, I would make lettuce sandwiches with Four Seasons: two toasted slices of multi-grain bread, margarine, tomato puree, yeast pâté, lots of hotsauce, and about 20 layers of lettuce. It was soooo tasty and after eating it I could practically hear the nutrients and antioxidents fizzing away.

Red Deer Tongue Lettuce
Lactuca sativa

This one is one of the oldest lettuces, popular throughout medieval Europe, but new to me. Again, this is another looseleaf variety, so I can just harvest leaves as needed without damaging the plant by cutting the entire head. I've wanted to try this kind for many years.

Maraichère Frisée Très Fin Endive
Cirhorium endivia

Ok, so I had to have one leafy-green that was actually green and not mostly red. Endive can be quite nice, but on its own is a bit bitter. On a sandwich, or in a salad mix, it makes a nice contrast in shape and texture, and the bitterness is just right. The cool climate here should help keep it from going over-bitter, as it often did in Georgia. Just don't ask me to pronounce the full name.

Red Oak Leaf Lettuce
Lactuca sativa

A classic that has done very well for me both in Georgia and in England. Lettuces typically don't do well in the heat (like in Georgia). In the hot summers they become bitter, tough, and go to seed. England, on the other hand, is about the best climate for lettuce imaginable. The only problem is that the best climate for lettuce (cool and moist) is also the best climate for snails and slugs. And slugs love lettuce. Fortunately, Red Oak Leaf is fairly slug resistant. It is not, however, Chris resistant.

Red Russian Kale
Brassica napus

Ah, kale. The curly kind is often used as decorative greenery for the food at all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants. Little do most people know that the kale is often tastier than the food it surrounds. I've had much success with this variety in Georgia, and after being steamed it simply melts in the mouth. It is a favourite of slugs, so I'll have to watch over this one carefully. Last year's planting was mostly devoured by these critters before it was ready. An interesting fact about kale: it is the only plant that can grow leaves out of its leaves without the use of a stem. Really, leaves will just grow out of others at 90 degree angles. You can actually see a tiny, thin, light green one in this picture, just to the left of centre, growing near the red mid-rib.

The Dawn of a New Blog

Welcome to my new blog. People have many reasons for starting blogs, many of them silly reasons. I've started because I'm not that great at emailing friends and family, and this is a very good medium for providing unobtrusive but regular updates about what I'm thinking and doing. Currently, I'm planning on updating it a few times a week, but I know those are famous last words on many a blog and website. We'll see how it goes. Have fun.