Saturday, 15 December 2012

I Like Trains. Especially When They're Roller Coasters.

I could not be more excited if someone had told me that they were considering building a helter skelter between my flat and the street. I would be a bit more excited - say, if someone actually had built a helter skelter between my flat and the street - but this incredible innovation is in Japan.

But with good reason.

Tohoku during the 2011 tsunami.

Following the devastation caused by the tsunami last year, a company called Senyo Kogyo (which designs rollercoasters and other amusement park rides) along with a team from Tokyo University's Institute of Industrial Science have designed the Eco-Ride, a train that will use largely its own inertia to move.

It will have no engine and be very light; gravity will do most of the work, so what little energy is required will cause next to environmentally unfriendly emissions. Its speed is controlled  by 'vertical curves' in the tracks and should be able to travel at up to sixty kilometres per hour.

Numerous areas of Japan are already interested in installing Eco-Ride trains and it is hoped that they will expand to be used all over, to get around cities and towns but also by big business and sprawling university campuses that take a lot of time to walk around between, for instances, important meetings or lectures. The first train is expected to be built in 2014. It is due to be built in Tohoku, which, aside from being necessary to help survivors of the flood get around the ruined landscape, is said to be the perfect environment for Eco-Ride trains because of the slope between the relocated accommodation on the high ground in comparison to the businesses at the lower sea level.

Alight, these people have had their home washed away by furious, broiling sea water, but very soon they will be able to get a roller coaster to work.

With all due respect, sympathy and wishes for a quick recovery from the tragedy ... I am a little bit jealous...

Monday, 19 November 2012

Fine. Go Extinct. We'll Make More.

Worried about animals going extinct? Afraid for the polar bear whose home is melting or the panda that simply refuses to fuck the other pandas? In all seriousness, these are important issues. Forget for a minute that more than 99% of all the species that have ever existed on the planet are already extinct, and remember that there are a few things that we more highly developed beings can do something to make things easier for our lesser evolved companions. All over the world, people are doing all sorts of things to help animals – they are prohibiting hunting and helping to preserve wild habitats and creating artificial habitats that are considerably safer and all sorts of other lovely helpful things.

But now Embrapa, the agricultural research agency of Brazil, has decided that, if those things do not work, then it is alright.

Because they are just going to make more. 

They have decided on a number of animals that are classed as “near threatened” on the IUCN list of endangered species to try to clone successfully, and hopefully push them into a safer zone. These include jaguars, the black lion tamarind, the bush dog, the coati, the collared anteater, the grey brocket deer and the bison. They set to begin work cloning the maned wolf very soon.

The maned wolf; cloning attempts will
begin within a month.
They acknowledge that cloning should be a last resort, but that does not mean that the potential of this plan is pretty damn cool.

What they need to be able to clone these animals is some living cells from each of them. Embrapa already have 420 wild tissue samples that they intend to use to create these clones.

Dolly the sheep, now stuffed.
I agree. It's sort of creepy. I love it.
This is not the first time that the cloning of endangered animals has been attempted. In 2009, an extinct species of mountain goat called the Pyrenean ibex was cloned, but it died at birth. Other animals that have famously been cloned include Dolly the sheep, as well as rarer ones including the ox-like gaur and the mouflon … whatever they are.

Since then, however, innovations in cloning have been much more advanced and, as a skill, cloning has vastly improved. The scientists working on this project have high hopes for it and are hopeful that it will serve as a bloody good back-up for when conservation just is not enough, and we will never have to say a permanent goodbye to these beautiful beasts.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Black People Officially Cool, Says Science

So, if this...

... when compared to this...

...isn't evidence enough that white guys have absolutely no innate sense of cool, then take a look at this evidence from genuine scientists that suggests that black people actually are the coolest people in the world.

Or, at least, in America. And on Twitter.

Jacob Eisenstein and his colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology examined thirty million tweets sent from various places within the US between December 2009 and May 2011 and watched for the emergence of new slang terms. They team built a mathematical model that precisely explains the flow of new words between cities.

It showed that areas with large African American tended to be the ones that generated the new terms. There was no conclusive evidence about why terms spread between certain places, and they could not pinpoint one specific area that produced new language more than any other.

But the overwhelming finding was the black people generally created and shared new words and phrases that were cool more than any other demographic in the world.

So, science has finally generated some evidence for the simple fact of the matter that black people are cool.

Plus, they've got the moves...

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Who Needs Hogwarts When You Have Science?

Scientists have been trying to create an invisibility cloak since 2006, following David Smith's theory of 'transformation optics', which explains how electromagnetic fields can be bent around an object and render it transparent. In the years between then and now, there has been some success, but they were not what you would call amazing.

Well, they were amazing, but they were not quite Harry Potter standard...

Now, David Smith and a graduate student called Nathan Landy have modified the old cloaks and have come up with one that they describe as being 'perfect'. As in, Harry Potter perfect.

Sadly, I can find no photos of Smith and Landy's prototype. This depresses me immensely. Then again, maybe there are pictures of it, but I just can't see it. In the mean time, I have found this, which is pretty fucking awesome:

When they originally composed the theory, they believed that it was highly unlikely that they would ever come close to perfect. They were wrong. I am deliriously happy.

With science this successful, really ... who needs Hogwarts?

Friday, 16 November 2012

Gingers More Susceptible to Cancer, Say Scientists

It shouldn't be funny. But it sort of is. First they have to be ginger, and now this.

David Fisher and his team at Massachusetts General Hospital did an experiment on mice with either red or black hair to see how they responded to the introduction of a gene linked with melanoma. They wanted to know more about melanoma after exposure to UV light; focussing on how much it damaged the fair skin of people - or creatures - with red hair.

But before they could observe anything relevant to their hypothesis - all the ginger mice got cancer.

This was completely unexpected, so they did some new experiments on ginger mice to find out what had actually happened. They bred some hybrid mice that were half-ginger and half-albino and tested them to see if it was the ginger gene or ginger pigment that was the issue. The specially bred mice had the ginger gene, but white hair, and they also tested on mice with both the ginger pigment and the ginger hair.

They tested again to see how they were affected by melanoma-inducing UV. All the white-haired mice were fine, despite carrying the MC1R (ginger) gene.

The mice with ginger hair all got cancer.


It's a shame really. Turns out Voldemort isn't the only thing this lot have to worry about...

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

One Step Closer to Cyborgs

Of all the cool gadgets and gizmos and random weird shit that sci-fi promises us will happen eventually, there are few that are expected to be achieved within our lifetimes. Given that I am younger than Game Boys, this means that there a good few decades of innovation awaiting us before we're all going around in hover cars.

But recently, it has been revealed that Federico Parietti and Harry Asada from MIT have brought mankind one step closer to cyborgs.

Remember when Bender sported these bad boys...?

Well, what was not made clear in that episode was that they were invented much closer to now than to then. And that they work on humans as well as robots.

Parietti and Asada have developed the prototype of a pair of semi-autonomous arms that are worn like a backpack and extend around the body. They are designed to be intelligent enough that they can be of assistance without needing a lot of tricky programming; they will learn and anticipate what their wearer wants them to do, having been programmed to perform specific tasks.

The work is being funded by Boeing and the prototypes were shown at the Dynamic Systems and Control Conference in Florida earlier on this year. The arms are being designed to help factory workers with jobs that require two pairs of hands; they are supposed to increase efficiency by letting that guy who would usually be the second pair do something more important with his time than just holding stuff.

They seem like they would be really useful once they have reached a point that they are available to industries. However, it is only a matter of time beyond that before they become commercialised and nerds like me get their hands on them and do awesome cosplays of this dude!

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The New Contender in the Energy Market: Air.

Evironmentally, you really can't win. Statistically, I am kind of winning; my life is quite environmentally friendly - I am frugal with electricity, I walk most places and get the bus to all other places, I have a Friends of the Earth hoodie - but that it because I am a poor student and I live in expensive London and Tim Minchin was at the Friends of the Earth gig, so I don't really have much of a choice in these matters. For people who can afford choice, you're pretty much damned if you do and damned if you don't. Using technology is necessary, but bad. Driving a normal is bad, but driving an electric car makes you a pretentious prick. Also, electricity is bad. And electric cars are ugly as fuck.

But this could be about to change. The G-Wiz will still be hideous and you will still look like a douche if you even consider getting into one. But it won't be your only option.

Because of these dudes. These wonderful nerds - and I do love nerds - at Air Fuel Synthesis are making fuel out of air.

Out. Of. Air.

Earlier on in October 2012, they revealed the first successful demonstration of their techniques, showing how carbon, hydrogen and oxygen can be taken from carbon dioxide and water in the air to be converted first into methanol and then into petrol.

They didn't even have to go into any more detail to blow my mind. The idea has been around since the oil crisis of the 1970s, but it still feels a bit like science fiction to me. So they offer this helpful graphic to explain to nerd-groupies like me who have no real nerd credentials aside from enthusiam:

The problem with it at the moment is the energy efficiency of the process. Obviously, it would not be environmentally beneficial if more energy was put into it than is created by it, and this is still being smoothed out, but that makes it no less cool.

With funding, it will get there. Eventually. There are huge plans for the technology which could revolutionise the way that energy is created. The maths for its development on a much larger scale is already sorted out and, once it has some firmer backing from governments, it is hoped that it will be a contender against oil in the energy market.

Hopefully it won't make the same mistake as some of the other companies that have tried to save the world and will offer us some technology that isn't too ugly to touch.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

A trip to the moon for $150 million? Bargain!

Alright, so space tourism is not exactly a new idea. In 2001, an Italian-American engineer called Dennis Tito (the dude on the right) with more money than he can spend in many many lifetimes paid $20 million for the privilege of an eight-day holiday on the International Space Station. I don’t blame him for a second – if I could do it, I totally would – but, at the moment, it is somewhat out of my price range.

But hopefully not for long. Given that by "long", I mean a couple of decades. So ... hopefully not in the semi-distant future.

Starting in 2013, Virgin Galactic, as well as three other companies arranging similar ventures, will be taking paying passengers to the very edge of space that are arranging. But Virgin Galactic offers the swankiest deal for your money. The lowest price is $95,000, so it is still some time before I can afford it, but it is predicted that it will be a hell of a lot cheaper as it becomes a more common pastime. Over nine hundred people – including Ashton Kutcher – have already reserved seats on the space flights. In a matter of years, flights to the moon will become commercially available at a starting price of $150 million.

I don’t even care. I want to go. I mean, how fucking awesome does this thing look?

Regulations will state that passengers have to be over eighteen years old and have to “consent to the risk”, which essentially means that they have to agree not to sue if they have any awkward side effects. I'm weird enough not to care that much if anything else unfortunate happened to me, and I'm already over eighteen, so that's all good. Customers will be offered a medical exam beforehand, but the companies will not apply height or weight restrictions, so fat people can do it too!

In all honesty, my favourite thing about the comparative lenience of the regulations is the thought that the stag parties of very rich young men could well be held - one day - in space. Or hen parties. Or birthday parties. Or anything. As long as you and all your guests are over eighteen. But, then again, who invites anyone under eighteen out anyway? At least, not without offering them a fake ID. I accept that they are probably a bit more strict about letting me in than your average shitty club.

The trips can take anywhere between 35 minutes and 2 hours, but Virgin Galactic will put you up for five days in accommodation, during which time you will have training and medical checks with your trip on the fourth day. You also get free entry – but no coverage for the cost of travel, which sort of sucks – to exclusive events between the time you buy your ticket and go on your flight. That means you can go to parties and presentations and air shows and test flights with all the big shots and astronauts and scientists, which is pretty awesome, and probably well worth a big chunk of the ticket price. Not to mention the fact that the waiting time between buying the ticket and actually going into space could stretch to as far as a few years, so depending on how much you take advantage of this you could get a hell of a lot of awesome nerd times out of it.

And then ... this:

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation reckons that flights available from spaceports in the US will offer suborbital flights in the next couple of years and orbital flights picking up shortly after. Within ten years, prices are expected to drop to below $50,000.

It’s not impossible…

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

$1.4 million Raised for Nikola Tesla Laboratory: Faith in Humanity Goes Up Ten Points

(Before you ask, I'm not keeping a tally but, if I was, Tim Minchin and his wonderful nerdy ilk would be responsible for most of them.)

Hardcore nerdism is apparently rife in Shoreham, New York, where the Tesla Science Centre at Wardenclyffe group has raised $1.4 million via online crowd funding to buy Nikola Tesla's laboratory in order to turn it into a museum. As a soon-to-be owner of a Nikola Tesla T-shirt, this excites me very much.

It being in America both disappoints and thrills me. I am disappointed because, unless by some miracle I suddenly get very rich, it is unlikely that I will be able to go. However, considering the sheer stupidity that has come out of America, I am overjoyed that this has happened at all. Reading about it only makes it seem so much better.

The point of the museum is that it is a place that is dedicated to science and education with Nikola Tesla - an inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist and futurist whose work led to the way electricity is used today - at its foundation.

Tesla was born in Serbia in 1856 and emigrated to America in 1884 to work for Thomas Edison. He soon moved on to work for himself and conducted high-voltage, high-frequency experiments, which resulted in inventions that made him world famous. Essentially, he made explosions out of electricity for a living, which is pretty damn awesome as far as I am concerned, never mind everything else for which we have to thank him.

In typical mad-scientist fashion, he spent as much money as he made on more and more experiments and ended up dying penniless in January 1943. But still managed to keep his hair suspiciously neat, judging by the pictures of him.

In 1901, Tesla bought 200 acres on Long Island's north shore where he established what is now his only remaining laboratory. It was purchased with the intention of building a wireless transmission tower but was never fully operational. Wardenclyffe Tower - also known as Tesla Tower - remaining, even if in diminished form, as a tribute to his life and achievements is amazing. It seems only fitting that that the group also hope to have it provide space for companies to perform scientific research.

Aside from his brilliance as a scientist, Tesla was one damn incredible human. He lived his life by a strict routine, squishing his toes one hundred times per foot in the belief that it stimulated his brain. Judging by his work, he may well have been right. He worked from 9am to 6pm, at least, every day, often continuing until 3am once he had had his dinner. He walked 8 to 10 miles ever day to keep in shape; he was elegant, stylish and incredibly groomed (just look at his hair!). His gray-blue eyes, he claims, used to be darker until they lightened due to so much use of his brain.

Tesla never married, but even he admitted that it was a bit of a loss to the world that his genes were not preserved. Then again, he also said that being celibate allowed him a lot more time to devote to his work, which was most certainly a good thing. However, he was sociable, and everyone who knew him loved him. He was considered to be charming and lovely and poetic, and it is almost no surprise that so many women threw themselves at him.

After all, he made shit like this possible...

He was wonderful. If he were alive today, he still would be. It is a shame more men are not like him in this world. I am a little bit in love with him. And with good reason.

If I ever get the chance, I am going to that Tesla museum and I am going to behave like a stalkery little fangirl and I am going to love it.

Funds are still being raised on the Tesla Science Centre website to continue with the restoration of the laboratory and the creation of the museum.

It is going to be awesome!

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Back The Fuck Off, PETA!

On the whole, and with no exceptions that come to mind, I am definitely for the ethical treatment of animals. I am a person, which means that I would come under the plural heading of people. So it would seem not unreasonable to assume that I should be in favour of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and their behaviour. Of course, in generalising everyone who supports PETA, I am purposely ignoring the crazy ones who firebomb medical research facilities for the cause; I am sensible enough to assume that these nutters are in the minority and that most of the supporters are decent people who just really dig animals.

If I had to point out something that bothered me about PETA, I would direct you here and I would advise that you listen very carefully to what they have to say. I would point out that the things highlighted in this show are largely the crazies mentioned above, but the woman who uses insulin but says that others shouldn’t because it was tested on dogs strikes me as a hypocritical cow.

Otherwise, I would generally think well of the organisation’s intention to bring a little more joy and a little less fear into the lives of creatures less evolved than ourselves.

And then I heard that they were ragging on Pokémon. And then I got mad.

Then I calmed down and did some research, just to see if it was worth me getting mad about it.

Yes, it was.

On this website, I found this: 

“Much like animals in the real world,” read PETA’s statement, “Pokémon are treated as unfeeling objects and used for such things as human entertainment and as subjects in experiments. The way that Pokémon are stuffed into pokéballs is similar to how circuses chain elephants inside railroad cars and let them out only to perform confusing and often painful tricks that were taught using sharp steel-tipped bullhooks and electric shock prods … If PETA existed in [the game world of] Unova, our motto would be: Pokémon are not ours to use or abuse. They exist for their own reasons. We believe that this is the message that should be sent to children.”

Upon reading this, I decided that PETA could fuck right off.

Clearly, not a single one of the fuckwits at PETA has watched an episode of Pokémon, let alone taken the time to understand the concept. Even without the backstories that ushered my generation into maturity, the first film alone is a monument to how the world of Pokémon is one that advocates love, equality and friendship, between all people and all Pokémon, no matter who or what they are. I refuse to believe that, after seeing the face it pulled when Ash got turned to stone, anyone can fail to believe that Pikachu loves him?

I know it made me cry when I went to see it in the cinema back when I was six years old. I know, now that I am nineteen, that it still does. Frankly, if you are not in some way affected by this face, then you are an emotionless monster.

The first series alone shows numerous examples of Ash behaving in the way that will best suit his Pokémon.  He frees his Butterfree so that it can go off with its true love, so that it can be happy even if it means they might never see each other again. He lets his Pidgeot remain in the forests around Pallet Town so that it can protect the weak wild Pidgey from a predatory wild Fearow that was terrorising their little society. He allows his Charizard to remain with a group of other Charizard where it can train until it achieves its full potential, which sadly Ash could not provide for it. Their parting is one my most distressing childhood memories, and this image still moves me because I know how much Ash  loved his Charizard and how much of a sacrifice it was for him to leave it behind where it could be happy.

Pokémon has never been anything other than a story of a boy and his friends, whom he loves dearly even when they are far apart. His friends might be human or they might be Pokémon, it does not matter to him, and it does not matter to us – his loyal and life long followers – either. We love who he loves, we cry when he cries and we cheer when he wins. We follow his defeats and we learn to accept them with him and, as we grow older and he remains perpetually ten years old, we continued to follow his adventures in the hope that one day we will see our hero fulfil all his dreams. Throughout his stories, his companions are his Pokémon and they are the most important things in the world to him. He loves them. He does everything for them. He would happily sacrifice everything for them. What is more – they love him too.

Take, for instance, the episode ‘Snow Way Out!’ (yes; I’m resorting to citing episodes; watch them, PETA!), in which Ash’s Pokémon give up the comfort and luxuriousness (yes, they are comfortable and luxurious, PETA) of their PokéBalls  to stop him from freezing.

It only takes one look at the way that Ash and Pikachu look at each other to know that they could not love each other more. I find it difficult to believe that there are many human beings that love other human beings – let alone animals – as much as Ash loves Pikachu and Pikachu loves Ash back.

If for even one day in my existence I love like that then I will consider myself content with life.

When I was kid – including the times I sometimes behave as if I still am – Pokémon taught me so much about life. I learned that it is not the quantity of friends that you have, but the quality of the friendships. I learned the no matter how far away your friends might be, they will always be important to you as long as you never forget how much they mean to you and that they will always remember the impression you had on their lives too. It taught me that it does not matter how weird or demented your friends seem at times, what matters is that they are there for you and that they love you.

It taught me that no matter how small and weak you may seem, if you work hard at what you want in life, one day you could be capable of great things.

I learned that it is not a bad thing to have weaknesses because everyone has them and that that does not mean that they cannot be overcome.

I have learned that no one can do everything alone, and that having people around you to support you no matter what is and always be one of the most important and valuable things in the world. I have learned that there is always room for improvement; it could be said that no matter how good you get there will always be someone better than you, but that is irrelevant as long as you never give up. I mean, if Meowth can talk, why can’t my dreams come true too?

Pokémon has taught me that even the hardest-seeming people can be good on the inside, even if it takes a little bit of time to see it.

Maybe it is because I was a little bit obsessed with it as a kid – maybe it is because I am still a little bit obsessed with it now – but Pokémon taught me a hell of a lot about the world. If this whole blog post has not convinced you about this, bear in mind that I have only used examples from the first series and first film. There has been a decade of Pokémon since offering the same message to my little brother, and I would not have it any other way.

My experience of Pokémon has taught me nothing but love and to have patience, tolerance and kindness to everyone and everything. I struggle to see how anyone who has ever watched an episode or played the game (and read the speech bubbles) could interpret it in any other way. In fact, it offends me that anyone could even conceive of saying such horrible things about something that quite probably had a lot to do with making me – and possibly a lot of other people my age – the person I am today.

Now, back the fuck off, PETA, and leave my childhood alone.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Neal Stephenson Is Making All My Dreams Come True and Blowing My Mind

Everyone who knows me know that I am quite the little nerd - and proud to be. My hero is Dr Ben Goldacre and there is a video somewhere of a tipsy me describing how I would abuse my patient privileges if he was my doctor. I blog about planets and bacon and the Higgs boson particle, for fun. I love New Scientist magazine and have been grappling with the desire to buy a subscription for a few years. I volunteer at the Science Museum in London and my face nearly exploded with joy when I got offered the job. My Twitter feed is flooded with tweets from groups like The Science Plaza and PhysOrg Science News. I love libraries, book shops and Forbidden Planet. I once cheered aloud when I stumbled across a repeat of Professor Brian Cox's Wonders of the Universe and again when I found Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time for £2 in a charity shop. I kind of have a thing for Iron Man (not Robert Downey Jr.; his kid is nearly my age, so that would be weird - I like Iron Man ... but it doesn't hurt that he has Robert Downey Jr.'s face, body and personality). I am addicted to TED talks. I have cried on three separate occasions when I did not get tickets to see the recording of Infinite Monkey Cage from the BBC (damn them). I have a favourite moon, and it's not even one of ours. I wept in a room full of strangers at the beauty of Adam Rutherford's video about all the history of NASA, with all its achievements and failures, simply because science is beautiful.

But I study Creative Writing and English Literature, which is one of those arty-farty degrees at which real scientists probably sniff. I am an amateur nerd, really, and this is unlikely to change any time soon. I am very much a nerd groupie, but that is hardly the same thing. A friend of mine told me that this is silly of me and that I should be studying particle physics or something, but I would just get too excited being surrounded by all those huge sexy nerd brains all day. I simply could not do it.

Some lovely, lovely nerds, including Ben Goldacre, who is all kinds of lovely,
and Tim Minchin and Adam Rutherford,
who have both made me cry by being wonderful

I do try to combine the two. I once wrote a poem about how the colour magenta exists only in the mind. It referenced The Matrix. I could have written the same one about the colour cyan, because human brains and eyes are strange and wonderful things. I did it because it is true and because it blows my mind a little bit.

But it was not a huge contribution to the mating of science and the creative arts. It was hardly Storm (which licks tits). It was not really significant at all, in fact. But it was an effort, a start, an attempt to combine what these two things that excite my brain cells.

A real achievement in this area, though, has to be the Centre (or Center, as it is in America, but my British computer does not like that) of Science and Imagination. I first came across this in an edition of New Scientist magazine that I had purchased to entertain myself while locked out of my flat (no, really). A couple of days later, it was all over my geek-heavy Twitter feed.

It looked fucking ace.

Yes, I did need to swear. It is just that exciting a development in the world. And my life.

It is not a surprise that science fiction fuels real science. Creative nerds come up with cool technology that they wish existed and scientist who agree that it is awesome try to come up with a way it could work in the real world. Take, for instance, the once imaginary flying machine, or the still semi-imaginary hover car. Just because it is still a work in progress does not mean it is not happening. Also included in this long list is Neal Stephenson's stratosphere-reaching tower, designed to study weather patterns, dock planes and launch rockets; it is currently being studied by Keith Hjelmstad at the Arizona State University to try to conceive of a way in which it could be made in real life.

This is all supremely cool; it always has been.

Author Neal Stephenson, as well coming up with the concept of the 20km-high tower, is taking it one step further, and blowing my mind in the process.

His work has largely been speculative fiction which explores mathematics, philosophy and science. The fact that he also looks quite like a wizard only makes him more my kind of nerd.

He is currently collaborating with the Arizona State University to attempt a project that will bring together writers, artists, scientists and engineers: The Centre for Science and Imagination. Its aim is to further science with radical thinking, to get scientists to go beyond the current parameters of technology and innovation to push the limits of knowledge to achieve the kind of advances that led scientists to the industrial revolution. It maintains that science should remain ambitious and that discoveries made now can be as incredible and life-changing as those made in the past few centuries. The belief is that creative thinking leads more effectively to tackling challenges still faced by mankind, that by not acknowledging the limits we set on technology we can find new ways to create that have not been previously considered.

Its progress - as well as forums encouraging discussions that could fuel these great innovations - can be followed on Hieroglyph, and anyone can join and participate. It is truly an amazing project that could well change the way that technology evolves in the coming century.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Nerdy Bacon Enthusiast Seeks ... Well, Bacon...

It only takes five minutes of surfing the net to know that nerds worship bacon. Adoration for it far surpasses the fervour of even the nuttiest religious zealot. It is only a matter of time before there is a bacon-centred faction of the Westboro Baptist Church picketing Weight Watchers meetings with signs claiming God's hatred for those who reject bacon and all its piggy goodness. Bacon overrides God, not only because it can be proved empirically, but because it is damn tasty. I highly doubt that God tastes any better. Anyone who can prove otherwise is welcome to correct me.

In short, bacon is the chosen nectar of the computer geek and it is undisputedly better than sex.

See? We're all actually exactly like that. Every single one of us. We just don't get out much, so not many people believe we exist. But, really: give us some bacon and we will do anything you want.


Yes, even that.

Just showing us this image gets us all hot and flustered and, well, within a few minutes we're just like putty in your hands...

Ooh, yeah, that's good.

Some sexy bacon fiend even took the time out of his busy life to put this image of Van Gogh's Starry Night together out of bacon:

Now, there is a guy who is going to get himself a lot of nerdy, bacony tail. Seriously, that took effort and he is going to get one hell of a reward. At least, he would if I knew who he was. Might be a girl. Doesn't matter: Google provided it.

This almost universal obsession has not gone unnoticed by those seeking a profit. In my lifetime of nerdism, I have come across many instances of this: gay bacon, bacon sundaes, bacon coffinsbacon-scented hand sanitiserbacon-flavoured toothpaste, bacon shoesbacon-scented air freshenerbacon-flavoured lubebacon wrapping paper, bacon typefacebacon plasters, bacon-smell-releasing alarm clocksBendy Mr Bacon, bacon-flavoured envelopes, bacon roses, bacon-scented soapbacon plushies ... there are even whole websites devoted to all this bacony goodness! If nothing else, they will certainly have a far more comprehensive archive than I!

Although, I do have to point what is probably my favourite thing across which I stumbled in my research (yeah, I know, I actually RESEARCH this bullshit):


Then there is Cybercandy.

Things that smell like, look like and incorporate bacon are all very well, but Cybercandy takes it all one step further. One glorious, bacony step. Cybercandy takes things that aren't bacon and makes them taste like bacon. They are amazing. I even bought one of these bad boys for a friend's birthday this year:

The lucky thing is that he is skinny enough and with a scarily powerful metabolism to be able to handle the calories.

Yeah. That's really what it says. That's nearly FOUR DAYS' worth of calories in one of those lollipops. Ouch. It is made purely of sugar, food colouring and bacon flavouring and it would fuck with the insides of any normal human being. Probably. I don't really have the balls to try. I dare you, though! It would be quite the achievement.

Totally worth it, though. Obviously. I mean, it is bacon...

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Free Money Day!!

How awesome does that sound?? Seriously, free money!! Who wouldn't want to be a part of that? After all, it does sound a hell of a lot like this...

Actually, if you're participating, then you're giving away money, and capitalism teaches us that that's bad, but it's not, really. It might seem silly but, once you think about it, this is actually a very lovely idea designed primarily to get people to take a few moments out of their day to connect with at least one other person. That's quite sweet.

I came across this when Stephen Fry tweeted about it. Isn't he a babe? It seemed intriguing - who wouldn't click on a link entitled "Free Money Day"?

The plan is that, all over the world, on September 15th, people will stop people in the street and offer them two pieces of money (i.e., two coins) and tell them to give one of them to someone else, some other random stranger. It does not have to be a lot of money - two 20p pieces, or something - because the point is not to give away monetary wealth. Instead, this is intended to inspire conversation, which is the point of the exercise, but it also gets people thinking about the nature of giving and sharing as well as attitude towards money.

It is organised by the Post Growth Institute and the point is to get people to think about what money means and to learn to appreciate the non-monetary things that people give, like smiles and conversations and friendship. There is no political or religious undertone and, although there is some agenda in the rethinking of trade and commerce, there is no really outspoken idea.

It is purely a voluntary venture. This means that anyone participating will be giving away their own money, but it also means that no one is pressured into doing anything. A lot of people seem to be willing to participate, judging by the response on Twitter, and the website makes everything perfectly clear to anyone with any queries. It explains that the general idea is to get people to think about the economy and its effectiveness in society.

 The philosophy of the concept and the progress of the event itself can be found at as well at on it's FaceBook and YouTube channels. It is quite an interesting social experiment, if nothing else, and I, for one, am interested to see how it goes.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

I'm Going to Mars!!

It is virtually undisputed that outer space is supremely cool. It is creepy and mysterious and captures the imagination of people across the world. People devote their lives to the study of it, whether in the more abstract and often less accurate joy of science-fiction writing or in the pursuit of answers through hard study and research. It has warranted the creation of NASA, which is one of the most amazing things ever to have come out of America. Outer space is where the secrets of the universe lie; pretty much everything we can learn about Earth has been learned and all the mysteries left to solve are somewhat further afield. The only people who disagree tend to be unimaginative and drab, rather like this idiot, who can’t even structure a sentence properly:

Some dickhead's ignorant opinion, courtesy of Facebook

(I considered ranting for a bit about precisely why this is ignorant and about how beneficial ALL scientific research is, even when it's an accident, but I already did it, here, so I figured I didn't need to do it again.)

Very recently, NASA’s Curiosity Rover landed safely on Mars and has started sending back pictures already. They are amazing. They aren’t the best quality photographs in the world, but they did come from Mars. Obviously, this made me very excited and I enlisted Google and Twitter to take me on a big old nerd binge.

Bas Lansdorp
In doing so, I stumbled across the Mars One Project. It is a private enterprise run by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp and its aim is to set up a colony of human beings on Mars over the space of the next few decades. The mission objective is to “establish the first human settlement on Mars by April 2023”. The Mars One team has been working on the plan for it since early 2011 and have the support of a number of “ambassadors”, including the Chairman of the Netherlands Space Society, the co-creator of Big Brother and CERN physicist Prof. Dr. Gerard ‘t Hooft, who was presented with the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1999 for his work on the quantum structure of electroweak interactions.

The first forty astronauts to be sent to Mars will be selected in 2013. They will all have to train for ten years so that they are prepared for their trip. A replica of the Mars One settlement will be built in the desert on Earth to serve as a place for the astronauts to prepare and train as well as to test the equipment. In January 2016, the “supply mission” will be launched, sending 2500 kilograms of food and other supplies in a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. In 2018, a rover will land on Mars to explore the selected area to find the best spot for habitation. In 2021, two living units, two life supports units, another supply unit and another rover will have arrived on Mars, prepared for the arrival of the astronauts. All “water, oxygen and atmosphere” production will be ready by the beginning of 2022 and the first group of astronauts are due to be launched towards Mars on September 14th 2022.

The first astronauts will be due to land on Mars in 2023 after an estimated 7-month journey, where the rovers will take them to their new home. More astronauts will be launched in groups of four every two years so that the colony will have reached 20 settlers by 2033. The Mars One team plan to send more hardware up with each additional group so that more and better exploration can take place as well as providing them with updated technology and providing better quality of life.

The plans for the 'settlement' to be built on Mars

Getting back from Mars is a hell of a lot harder than getting to Mars – look at how long it took for us to develop rockets on Earth. The astronauts will not be visiting, but emigrating to Mars, where they will be expected to stay, possibly for the rest of their lives. They will have to leave everything on Earth behind in the attempt to learn more about the red planet. Training for the astronauts before they leave will include staying in simulation bases to see how they cope with being secluded, away from everything they have ever known and loved, and being left with only the other astronauts. They must be extremely intelligent and able to cope in unfamiliar environments, as well as being able to solve any problems that may occur by themselves, especially those in the first team of four who will be alone for two years on a different planet. They must also have a knowledge of engineering, in case anything goes wrong with the technology, as well as the ability to cultivate crops and see to any medical problems. The team at the moment predict that they may well stay there for the rest of their lives, but it does not exclude the possibility that the technology necessary for a return rocket can be sent to Mars after a few years so that astronauts can return if they wish. Considering the state of technology now, and given the amount of time for proliferation between now and when the return rocket will be required, this is not an unreasonable estimate.

The settlement on Mars will include “inflatable components which contain bedrooms, working areas, a living room and a ‘plant production unit’, where they will grow greenery”. Within the settlement, the Mars One website predicts that the astronauts will “lead typical day-to-day lives”. There, their task will be building and researching. They will have to prepare for when the other groups land as well learning about Mars. Their research will include how people and plants respond to life of Mars as well as things like Mars’s geology and biology. Essentially, imagine everything the scientists throughout history have learned about Earth - forty people are going to be sent to do all of that on another planet.

Reading the information offered by the website does seem like they have thought of everything. It does not go into great detail, but it does offer an FAQ page as well as a contact address for anyone with further questions. The page explaining why and how the astronauts will emigrate to Mars is quite cool. They claim to have found a place where there is water ice beneath the surface that can be cultivated to provide hydration for the astronauts. They describe how everything will be powered by solar panels so that they do not need to go to the hassle of building a nuclear reactor for energy. They go to a lot of effort to ensure that people know that they understand what they are undertaking.

The Mars One website has a Sponsorship page, inviting businesses and companies of all sizes to sponsor the project and “play a significant role in creating World History” and “make the next giant leap for mankind”. However, the project will mainly be funded by having the whole thing being as a reality TV show. Suddenly it makes sense that the Big Brother guy is involved; otherwise, he really stuck out as a bit of a loser in amongst all those people with physics doctorates…

From the selection and preparation of the first astronauts, right through the launch of the first rover to the point at which a colony has formed on Mars, everything will be broadcast on television and be made available online for the public to view. The Mars One team insists that there will be no gimmicky bullshit like in most reality TV shows, that the integrity of the mission itself should be more than enough to attract people to watch. I know I would watch, but I’m a nerd, and generally I hate reality TV, so I don’t really know if I’m a good example.

I actually think this is brilliant. I don’t know if it will work. I don’t think that there have been enough critical analyses of the plans by people who have a lot of in-depth knowledge about all the necessary science for me to draw any proper conclusions. I have had a look at the Wikipedia entry for Mars One as well as the one for Prof. Dr. Gerard ‘t Hooft, the most advertised of the team’s “ambassadors”. I have had a very long look at the website and I, with my nerdy but nonetheless layman’s knowledge, think it is pretty awesome, but it only makes sense to remain sceptical before I have a bit more information. They seem very determined that everything go right and well and that all the science be absolutely fool-proof, so that they are taken seriously and so that they don’t end up stranding forty well-meaning astronauts somewhere between Earth and Mars without food or oxygen. It does feel a little bit like that episode of The Simpsons in which Homer went to space, but science is not about feelings – it is about doing research and getting results and using the information gleaned from crazy ventures just like this to make a better world for generations to come.

Now I know I’m not exactly astronaut material right now – but if Homer Simpson can do it, anyone can. Besides, there is another year before the selection begins and I will be thirty when the first team is launched, so I've got time to prepare. I won’t lie, I have already signed up for some free online study groups beginning in January of next year that focus on biology and other things that may come in handy with my application, but I was already signed up for one about astrobiology and I don’t have much going on during the time of course, so my nerdism probably would have led me to do them anyway.

I would like a bit more information about it, maybe some objective opinions about it from more than a handful of people. I would like to see the specifics of the plans – more details, for instance, about exactly how they expect me not to die. If this project really is as good as the website makes it out be (which it probably won’t be; nothing ever us, but we may as well be hopefully), I would happily sign up. Never mind that my nan doesn’t like me living as far away as London and is such a technophobe that there is no way she will trust the video messaging system, even though I know for a fact that they guys at CERN currently use Skype (Brian Cox did it at Uncaged Monkeys in December 2011; I was there, it was awesome).  Never mind that the minimum age limit is 25. Never mind that it may mean spending most of my life on Mars and much of the time beforehand training and studying to be competent enough to go to Mars. Never mind that if I do spend a lot of time studying and training and then end up not making the final cut that I would have wasted as much as ten years of my life (provided I start working for it now, or at least in the next six months or so) for something I never will do. None of that matters.

This is Mars. The planet. This is a chance to go down in history. This is dangerous and exciting and amazing and unbelievably nerdy. Space exploration is one of the coolest and most incredible things that mankind has achieved and it is all done by amazing nerds, which Hollywood will have you believe are all also total babes. This is not always untrue.

The fact is that Mars is the next thing that mankind has to explore. Maybe we haven’t learned everything there is to learn about the moon or even the Earth, but we will, and why shouldn’t we be heading off to Mars too, so we're there ready to start working when everything else is done? We all know it is going to be awesome, but you don’t have to believe me, because my opinion is only mine and I am obviously not the best spokesperson for this sort of thing.

Rather, believe Carl Sagan: