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.