Saturday, 28 July 2012

The Sale

I had planned to spend my Saturday catching up on some American political history by finishing off my anthology of Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo journalism. I've only got a few hundred pages left to go, out of well over a thousand, and it's pretty gripping stuff. It has led me to believe that if everything was chronicled half as well that we would be living in a more literature and drug-fuelled world (both most certainly improvements, if Thompson's accounts are anything by which to judge).

But I did not do that, because Katie phoned me in the early afternoon and asked if I wanted to go swimming in the outdoor pool in Hitchin. I said that I very much did want to do that. After some frantic Googling of bus timetables between Luton and Hitchin, we went. It was much fun, and something of an adventure, and my ears are still full of chlorine.

On our brief walk between the bus stop and the swimming pool took us through a very rural area on the outskirts of Hitchin. We wandered down a path with a field on one side and some homes on the other side. They were nice houses, large and well-tended with ornate gates leading onto nice front gardens that were fenced off from the outside world. It was pleasant. It made me wonder why my family chose to live in Luton when Hitchin was right around the corner.

Outside one of the houses, stacked alongside the fence, was a row of boxes and shelves full of books and clothes and miscellaneous household items. Sellotaped to the fence were pieces of paper with prices on - not expensive; very little cost more than £1 - and the request that any moneys paid in exchange for goods be placed in the letter box next to the gate. There was no one there to make sure the people did not simply help themselves to the things. 

Admittedly, these were things that their last owners did not want any more and apparently didn't think would earn much on eBay, but it struck me nonetheless that there was a measure of trust offered to passersby that they would not steal the things. I mean, not everyone carries change on them and might not want to bother paying more than the requested 20p. Or maybe just seeing the opportunity to get something for nothing would be too tempting to pass up.

Maybe it's just because I was raised in Luton - a unashamedly unscrupulous place with a few too many shoplifters and petty criminals - but I would not expect people to pay for things that I had left in the street. Even if they were things I didn't want; if I left a box of things to be sold on the pavement outside my house, I'd probably just expect some drunken idiot to either piss or vomit on them and then I would most likely getting trouble for causing such a huge mess.

The fact is that it was nice to see someone - the previous owners of these goods - who actually trusted other people to exchange their change fairly for their unwanted property. It was nice. It was rare. I enjoyed seeing it. It was not a huge thing to be doing and they were most likely just trying to get rid of some things, but it was enough to make me think and make me smile. I spent quite a lot of time rummaging through the things and wondering if I could justify buying any of it. 

I did buy some. 

(not me)

I left with eight or nine books and I put a few quid in the letter box. They were even kind enough to provide a few carrier bags so I could carry them home.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

A Rant: Stupid People

Once upon a time, a bit more than thirty years ago, some nerds, who were brilliant at their job and have greatly benefited mankind, began a project called ENQUIRE. They used it to send each other digital messages from different points on the globe so that they could exchange information and the research they were doing into intensely difficult particle physics could come along a bit more quickly. In 1993, it was announced that the internet would be free to use by anyone. Now, less than 20 years later, it is difficult for some people in the modern generation to imagine how people lived without it. It's general lexis has bled into everyday speech. It has had a huge impact on society and, quite frankly, it was unbelievably generous of those first nerds to allow everyone in the world unlimited access to anything they could possibly want for free. Some of the most intelligent people in the world spent decades working and studying to come up with this and they shared it with the world to do with it what we will, which is why shit like this annoys me:

I am all for freedom of speech but, personally, I try not to comment on things that I don't understand so that I do not confuse or mislead people who trust my judgement; clearly these morons don't want to offer people the same courtesy I do.

And now I could rant a bit more about how intellectually frustrated this barefaced bullshit makes me feel and I could hopelessly bemoan the state of humanity, but I think that this does it well enough for me:

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Richard Nixon Effect on FaceBook

I am currently reading an anthology of writings by Hunter S. Thompson, which is essentially a collection of rambling, drug-addled rants about sports, politics and generally the state of the USA throughout the past 50 years. It's very interesting.

Over the past couple of days, I've read his account of Watergate and all of the scandal surrounding President Richard Milhous Nixon's resignation from the White House. Up until now, everything I knew about Richard Nixon can be epitomised by this picture:

It doesn't really matter that I don't know much about him. It might have been pertinent to my life if I was American and wanted to be a politician, but I'm actually neither. But I did find it interesting.

While he was President, Nixon recorded everything that happened in the White House. He had bugs placed in the all the phones and he carried around a tape recorder so that he could make a note of every thought that he had as President of the United States. He had people running around after him making notes to catalogue everything he did. After he resigned, as part the agreement of his pardon for Watergate from his successor Gerald Ford, he was given all the tapes so that he could keep them as a memento of his presidency forever.

Thompson said that Nixon's obsession with recording things made it look like he cared more about having something to put in the history books than actually running America, as if what was important was how he would look afterwards and how he would be remembered rather than actually helping his country. In the account, Thompson often compared him vividly to the Nazis, even going so far as to liken his underlings to Hitler's advisers, so he clearly wasn't perceived well. But he has been remembered, so it would seem that his aim has been achieved.

Thompson described Nixon's behaviour as a form of mental illness. This is coming from someone whose job it was to record everything that happened and who spent much of his career developing a whole new form of journalism based on it. But he nonetheless categorised the voluntary recording of one's own life as a form of madness. The way he wrote it, I could not help but agree. It seemed so strange that someone would do that - would record every second of their waking moment to ensure that they would be remembered exactly as they wanted to be perceived by other people.

But then I realised that it's practically the norm to do that now. No one does anything without worrying about what they'll tweet about it or how the photos will look on FaceBook. The TimeLine feature on FaceBook means that people can scroll back through their lives and edit out the things they don't want other people to see. It's exactly what Nixon did, exactly what made Thompson - who is, quite frankly, brilliant considering how well he can write when blitzed - predict that Nixon would spend the rest of his life listening to those tapes and reliving his presidency over and over again. Now, pretty much everyone automatically uploads and updates and makes sure that everyone else know what is going on at any given time.

It's scary to think that we'll all end up like Richard Nixon.

Then again, who wouldn't want to run the world and have an awesome body despite being nothing more than a head in a jar?

Yes, I realise the irony of blogging about this.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

What I Did Last Night

Last night was a Friday and, as I have next to no life, I was indoors and bored. I could have been out doing normal teenager-y things, but it was raining and I prefer being comfortable to being sociable. Therefore, I spent my Friday night listening to The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing and cleaning out the drawers in my bedroom, which have spent the past four years or so accumulating miscellaneous junk. Except the bottom one. The bottom one is broken and doesn't open, so remains unmolested.

Here is The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing.

Here is a list of things I found in my drawers, in no particular order because I cannot be bothered to alphabetise (for once) and I forget the order in which the things were found:

  • 4 pairs of ordinary 3D glasses
  • 1 pair of Harry Potter 3D glasses
  • 1 pair of Shrek 3D glasses
  • My retainer
  • A tasselly waistcoat - I still haven't decided whether or not I think it's hideous...
  • All the plans for the James Bond parody series Monty Bond I wrote with Elliot in Year 9
  • The Geography assignment that got me a level 7 in Year 9
  • Thousands of keyrings, including many in the shape of sperm
  • The original drawings of Wild Whizz, Wild Ted and Wild Tizzwed
  • The guitar tab for 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer'
  • A tangled mass of Scooby Strings (if you don't know what these are, then you had no childhood)
  • My Blue Peter badge
  • Numerous other badges, many Pirates Of The Caribbean
  • 5 watches that have stopped working
  • 1 watch that still works
  • The first three acts of a musical I started but never finished writing when I was about 13 entitled The Adventures of Captain Retard, complete with lyrics for three songs and the guitar riff for one. I kept this. It was hilarious. Terrible, but hilarious.
  • A pristine edition of Top Gear Magazine from at least 3 years ago
  • A list of supremely shit Things To Do Before I Die, which have since been heavily revised
  • A number of Poundland bags-for-life
  • A rusty bracelet I found on the beach about six years ago
  • The provisional drivers' licence I had to have replaced because I couldn't find it in time for my theory test. Oops.
  • A brass engraving of Charles Dickens
  • Many notebooks filled with shit drawings and random facts
  • A 'Bloke Bingo' scorecard
  • Some nail varnish that was so old that it had dust on the inside
  • Smudgy photographs of me and Beca from the photo booth in the Namco Station at the Galaxy
Draw whatever conclusions you will from this information. Personally, I am struggling to understand how I made it out of childhood so normal... Still, got a good list out of it. And who doesn't love lists?

Thursday, 19 July 2012

So I was going to rant about 50 Shades...

... but this pretty much sums up everything I would've said.

I mean, mine would've been more sweary, probably, and far longer, but wouldn't have said any more, really. You would've come away with the same impression.

If you are going to do some Googling for better erotica, might I suggest the lovely Leone Ross.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Looks Like I'm Going to Hell...

In my daily Googling and checking of FaceBook and Twitter, I tend to come across a lot of material created by people who don't seemed to understand their own religions. I am well aware and perfectly willing to admit that the reason I see a lot of these because I Liked and Followed a lot of pages that post them and I have no right to complain about my seeing of them. In fact, I don't mind them - sometimes they can be funny; more often, they make me wonder how humanity got to this stage of civilisation considering all the stupid people in it. But it does make me think. Partially about how people can so badly misinterpret a book at the heart of which is "Love thy neighbour" and, more broadly, about how supremely stupid people can be.

One of the most famous examples of religious zealotry is the Westboro Baptist Church, who take the conventional "God hates... [insert minority group here]" signs to the extremes of pretty much sending everyone in existence to hell. They are the kind of people who show up at the funeral of a soldier and chant at his family saying that their beloved son has gone to hell because he fought in a war that displeased their God. This is beyond despicable and anyone who has any sense of compassion would realise this. This disgusting behaviour is passed off as patriotism and religious fervour.

It's not; it's hateful.

But when all they have on their sign is "God hates you", it's difficult to know what you can do to change to earn God's favour. That in itself is something of a clue that these people don't really care about saving your immortal soul. They just rather enjoy making you feel like crap simply for existing.

But there are some groups - usually from the same extreme-right areas of America, but not always - who make the effort to specify what you're doing wrong and why God hates you. This is somewhat more useful if you conform to their ideas of a hateful Christian God and you want to fit into their rigid regime.

Take for example the helpful young man in the picture below, who has taken it upon himself to highlight the faults of pretty much everyone he can think of that might have displeased God. To his credit, he has made a thorough and clearly thought out list of all the things offensive to God. Apparently, God also hates the proper use of apostrophes. Either that, or this guy is just making it up as he goes along; you would think that if his writing was driven by a divine hand that there would at least be a basic grasp of punctuation...

I have to admit that some of them make a lot of sense. I am certainly not a fan of Mormons, wife-beaters (the people, not the style of top), racists or Scientologists (note the absence of unnecessary apostrophes in my list). In fact, there are quite a few social and religious groups that I'm not too keen on in that list. And, if there is a God, it's probably not too happy with the atheists - but that is purely providing that there is a God. 

But who are the effeminate men hurting? Really? And the Democrats - whether or not you agree with there policies, that is purely a political prejudice and has nothing to do with religion, as well as being a political party that is exclusive to America and so it is a moot point outside of the States. Then there is the rather broad heading 'liars'. I don't know anyone who hasn't told at least one lie, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, it IS best to say "No, we're definitely not throwing you a surprise party," or "Yes, I loved the birthday present you gave me; I definitely didn't think it was hideous...". I understand that emos sometimes can be a bit annoying, but I also think that sending them to burn for all eternity is a bit extreme. The threat certainly won't do anything to cheer them up. As an opinionated owner of ovaries, I also object to the phrase 'loud mouth women'. And I don't even know what they mean by 'sophisticated swine' or 'high fullutent'. I even Googled the word 'fullutent', and it didn't know what it meant either.

At this point, it would be easy to dismiss it by saying that that's just one idiot, but there are more. A quick Googling will prove this. But, if you can't be bothered to do that yourself, here's another one:

Again, it starts off with some quite sensible ideas. I would be quite happy to see Satanism, Scientology and astrology all disappearing from our culture and into the history books. I don't think that tarot cards, ouija boards, remote viewing or divination have any real affect on the world, but in general I don't care much when people do it. Lycanthropy (werewolves) and vampirism are pure fiction, so avoiding them should be pretty easy. Hallowe'en is famously a pagan celebration that has made its way into American culture, so it's easy to see why especially religious people would oppose it, but it's harmless. And, there at the end, what sensible person doesn't loathe Twilight? Although, apparently, the films pave the path to Satan, but the books don't. Maybe this person just really doesn't like Kristen Stewart and her bland, emotionless acting.

But there's Harry Potter, right there at the top of the third row, beneath video games. As a huge Potterhead and big fan of the Pokemon series, I am definitely NOT standing for that one. They realise that J. K. Rowling is religious, right? And that all the revelations about love and respect and everything that Dumbledore said in the last book was all based on the Christian teachings that she values? And Dungeons and Dragons. Really? Nerd games are going to send you to hell? Oh dear. Then fornication - not even sexual perversions or deviations, but all fornication - that's everyone who has ever had a baby; that's everyone who isn't a nun or a child. Not to mention 'skull and bones' - are they seriously trying to suggest that anyone born with a complete skeleton is doomed for all eternity?

Then, right at the bottom there's both rock music and heavy metal, which puts all that remains of my friends (that is, the ones that don't read Harry Potter or play Dungeons and Dragons) firmly in with the rest of us hell-bound fools.

It can't just be me who thinks that God doesn't really care about all these things, can it? Even if there is a God - and if even it does care intimately about people's private lives - why would these things matter? Surely, such a being would be above our choice of reading and listening material? Isn't it pretty obvious that God doesn't care too much about any of these things and that people are just using religion to justify their hatred and bigotry?

It's disgusting and a repellent use of religion and authority designed to hurt people and, quite frankly, until this behaviour is stamped out, we might as well just enjoy the efforts of winners like this dude:

"You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." - Anne Lamott

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Most Amazing Person You've Never Heard Of: Norman Borlaug

79 years and 3 days before I was born, a brilliant man was born in America. In his lifetime, he won many awards for his achievements and saved so many lives that people lost count long ago. Yet, very few people know his name or why it is important.

Norman Ernest Borlaug received in PhD in plant pathology and genetics in 1942 and then moved to Mexico, where he researched wheat. The research he conducted in the team of plant pathologist George Harrar led him to develop various genetically engineered strains of wheat which was high-yield and disease resistant. His work there spanned sixteen years, during which time he bred many successful crops. Altogether his work meant that a lot more wheat could be harvested from any given crop and his work in Mexico alone saved at least a million people from starvation.

After that, his career took him through numerous starving communities including places in India, China and various countries in Africa. In each one, he studied and improved the crops so that more could be gathered and more people fed. In the mid-1960s, he started to spread his powerful crops in war-torn India, which saved millions more from acute famine. He took his crops to Pakistan where wheat yields nearly double and, in the space of three years, the country became self-sufficient and no longer depended on foreign aid in order to stave off starvation.

In 1970, Borlaug was presented with the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to the world food supply. At that time, it was estimated that he had already saved over a billion lives.

When he retired from travelling through starving countries, he continued to teach and research to continue his legacy. His died of lymphoma at the age of 95 in December 2009. His achievements saved the lives of more people than you will ever know. He dedicated his life to easing the suffering of others and ending hunger in the world and no one can say that he did not achieve just that many times over. Throughout the course of his life, he was honoured with numerous awards and prizes for his work in helping others – and rightly so.

The sad thing is that so many people will never hear his name. He is no celebrity and he is not taught in schools, except to speciality students focussing on plant genetics. The amount of people he has saved from starvation increases every day as more and more people in developing countries survive on the crop strains that he developed and introduced to their ecosystems.

But the worst thing about people not knowing about Norman Borlaug and his amazing work is that it breeds so much ignorance among people who think they know about genetically engineered food. People campaigning against GM crops claim that it is harmful to people and that it will mutate them, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The fact is that people make ignorant comments about it and stupid people listen; then stupid people get into power and they take the crops away from all the people who are benefiting from them. That wouldn’t be a problem if this wasn’t something that was necessary to save lives. People are already starving even with GM crops – without them, the world would not be able to feed two thirds of its population.

It’s only thanks to people like Norman Borlaug that mankind is becoming truly self-sufficient. Maybe people should stop complaining and thank him.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Did you think I was going to shut up about the Higgs? You were wrong.

In this very month, the wonderful nerds at CERN announced the discovery of the elusive Higgs boson particle, for which they have been searching since the construction of the Large Hadron Collider, in order to confirm or debunk the Standard Model of the universe. They found it (more or less). The Standard Model works – the mathematics of it fit our universe in a way that explains it in a rather complex but understandable model. The Higgs boson was the last piece of the puzzle and now we have reasonable evidence that it exists.

At this point, it depresses me that a lot of people now say “So what?”

I heard some innocent person – who was actually trying to defend the expense and effort put into this research – reply “Well, because they were curious. They just wanted to know.”

And, to some extent, that is true, but that response could be said of any and all science and it strips it down into its absolute barest motive. There is no doubting that curiosity is at the base of every scientific experiment, every theory and deep in the heart of every person who has ever been interested in anything even remotely scientific. But to say that all of CERN and everything it has achieved has been only to satisfy the curiosity of a handful of nerds is to massively devalue all that it has done and all the benefits it has bestowed upon civilisation.

If you ask any random person on the street what CERN has achieved in its lifetime, they probably will not be able to give you an answer, unless by some tiny chance you asked someone as nerdy as I am. You might get someone moaning about how much it cost. But that is relative and, when you think about what it actually has achieved, you realise that all the money gone into it is actually piss in the ocean.

The science budget in most western countries is miniscule when you think about how much governments waste on other rubbish. Take, for instance, the now quite famous government spending chart from The Guardian in 2008, which shows quite clearly how more than £620.6 billion was divided between all the things for which the government wanted to pay. All money put towards science came under the heading “Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills”, which received, of all that money, only £3.3 billion. That £3.3 billion includes all medical research, space exploration, developments in technology and engineering as well as things like arts and humanities that need money to flourish and come under the same heading. That tiny fraction of government funds is not a lot of money, especially when you consider that science pays for itself sooner or later. The Apollo programme, for example, paid for itself fourteen times over. That means that for every $1 that the American government invested in the project, it put $14 back into the economy. On average, the American government earns 700% profit on money put towards NASA. Research in quantum physics led us to a better understanding of the way our world works; scientists exploited that to create the transistor, which is the building block of pretty much all modern technology, including phones, radios and computers. Pretty much any development in the understanding of how our universe works will lead to more improvements like this in our lives.

CERN has been around since the 1950s and the LHC was built between 1998 and 2008. Everyone – particularly those who have seen either my FaceBook page or Twitter feed – knows its most recent news, but many more of its achievements seem to have been completely forgot. The progressive achievements in particle physics are numerous; between 1973 and 2012 they found far more than just the Higgs boson. In 1984, two CERN physicists were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work there and the discovery of the W and Z bosons. And to anyone who says that now that the Higgs has been found that the LHC is now worthless and no more than a blight on the Swiss landscape, you’re wrong. It is now being used to study dark matter, one of the most mysterious things in physics, and could tell us more about the universe than any discovery in the history of science if its work in the future is half as successful as it has been so far.

The fact is that there are loads of things going on at CERN, but the discovery of the Higgs boson particle is the only one that has really been publicised because of the massive machine it took to find it. The real problem with these achievements is that they only really have relevance to those who know how to use them, those physicists who care about finding the answers and confirming models of the universe. But these are quite a small minority of the people; most people will happily take advantage of all these developments without really caring how or why it works. But that is not to say that these findings do not have a huge impact on your life.

I can guarantee that everyone reading this has used – in fact is using right now – the biggest thing to come out of CERN. I would very much like to dither for a while and let you squirm or maybe get a bit defensive and insist that of course you have not used this thing that is so popular because of course you would know that it comes from CERN if it was that amazing and that big a part of your life. But, actually, it is pretty amazing and you definitely use it.

A project called ENQUIRE was born in CERN in the late 1980s. It was based on the concept of hypertext and was designed so that researchers could share information from different parts of the word. In 1993, the World Wide Web became free and available to everyone and anyone.
No matter what else it does, CERN will always be the birthplace of the Internet. Think of all the money that has been saved and made because of the Internet, both by independent business, people and even governments and huge corporations. Think of everything that is on the Internet that otherwise humanity would not have. Forget the spam and the porn and the whining teenagrs complaining on FaceBook about how much they hate life even though they are luckier than any other generation. Think about how easy it is to share information, or to start up a business. Forget that without YouTube there would be no Justin Bieber and remember that without YouTube there would be no TED talks. Think about having a forum for your opinion and your thoughts no matter who you are or what you think. Think about a freedom of debate and a simple and easy way to connect with people just like you, no matter where they are in the world. Think about having global news at your fingertips whenever you want it and think about how seeing a silly reblogged meme face can make your whole day.

Think about the hypocrisy of some nutter blogging or tweeting about how the LHC is unnecessary and CERN is a waste of money and effort.

Now thank CERN for providing you with such an incredible gift given free to the rest of mankind and stop calling it the ‘God particle’.

Is Evolution Really That Difficult?

No, no it's not.

A friend of mine – an intelligent, well-read, scientifically-minded friend, I might add – was recently chatting to me about an archaeological dig which had revealed a 2-million-year-old skeleton that appeared vaguely human. The significance of the story was that it was the most complete and intact skeleton that had been recovered in all the digging-up of ancient bodies. I found it quite interesting. So did he.

Then he asked if scientists had “discovered the missing link, yet, or have they given up?”

This concerned me. Of all my friends – and I have a few – he is one of the few that I might consider about as nerdy as I am. I might have imagined that he would know the answer to this question, already, particularly as it isn’t a difficult one to answer for anyone who knows much about the current state of evolutionary science.

The fact is that scientists have had the ‘missing link’ for years. There are dozens of transitional fossils between Sahelanthropus tchadensis and Homo sapiens, the oldest being about seven million years old and the most recent being, well, us. All the different species have been found in fragments and are usually separated via the skull, particularly the brow and jaw lines. As far as I was aware, the only people who don't believe in a ‘missing link’ these days are religious morons who refuse to accept evidence when it is staring them in the face, and the poor neglected people who have been brainwashed by said religious morons into not looking at evidence. On top of that, scientists are finding new links, between links, every day. There are complete lists of them all over the internet, and there was an article about a new species of Australopithecus in New Scientist magazine just a couple of months ago. I know because I bought it (I’ve wanted a subscription for a while, but couldn’t afford it, so I bought it this time because I needed a magazine for an assignment at uni, and thought it was a perfect opportunity to indulge my nerdism). I remember it because it also had a picture of Professor Brian Cox on the front, which is always a bonus.

Alright, so the evolutionary line is still not perfect and there are still some species left to be discovered. But, so what? There is enough evidence for it that there really is no room for debate about evolution any more. Religious or not, there is no empirical evidence against evolution (the Bible doesn’t count as evidence). Quite frankly, anyone who ignores all the substantial evidence for evolution is going to get dumped in with the nutter who wrote the letter on the right.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Why Aliens Hate Us Already

Everyone knows that, no matter how small, there is a chance that aliens exist somewhere in the universe. There are loads of theories floating around, but anyone who knows anything about outer space (by which I mean scientists, the people whose job it is to study outer space; not pre-pubescent boys reading comic books or drunken idiots who see flashing lights in the sky conveniently near an airport) can pretty much guarantee that alien life forms may not be little green men and they certainly will not live on Mars. We have rovers on Mars and they have confirmed that the closest we will get to life there will be bacteria and that nothing intelligent is likely to be found there until it has had a chance to evolve for a few million years first.

But there is bacteria everywhere. There are tiny, ignorant, wriggly little life forms – the kind that you can find in cheese – pretty much everywhere in the universe and we are only starting to see them now because we have only recently managed to build technology that can see things that small in places that far away. There is a lot of water in space and where there is water there is precisely this kind of life. There are lots of other liquids which could also be a starting point for different kinds of life – kinds that thrive on something other than water. It is not unreasonable to believe that there are lots of tiny living things that, in a few billion years, could end up as fish. But that really is not the kind of life about which anyone cares.

If modern cinema is to be believed, the kind of alien life forms about which people care are the kinds that we can blow up. Even the films where they hold the secrets to the origins of life have some explosions and a fair amount of inter-planetary warfare. But, as every sadistic schoolboy will figure out by the time he hits his teens, there is no satisfaction in blowing something up if there is not risk that it will not find back. Unless it plays Dungeons and Dragons, but then only because it hilarious to see small children trying to create force-fields with their eyes.

For any kind of inter-planetary war to occur, alien life needs to be intelligent, by which we mean about as advanced as we are. In order for any kind of contact to be made – for nothing can be agreed between peoples, neither peace nor war, unless they have at least made contact – aliens need to be about as technologically advanced as we are. They can be no more than fifty years or so behind us and their technology must send and receive signals in the same way as we do, otherwise all our digital messages will be lost in space. In the same way that you need a phone to receive a phone call, if they do not have technology capable of receiving the data that we transmit then they simply will not get it and we will never make contact.

This means that if it is possible for us to make contact with alien life any time in the near future, then they must be at least as sophisticated as we are. A lot of people (and by people, again, I mean scientists; I mean people whose opinions on the subject are based on evidence and thus worth considering) believe that if any alien life form is going to contact us, they will be more advanced than we are. This makes a lot of sense; in terms of the age of our universe, we have not had this sort of technology for very long. When your solar system is 13.2 billion years old, fifty-odd years is not a lot of time.

This means that alien life forms capable to making contact with us already have better technology that we do, which means that they can receive all of the signals that we transmit already. If they want to, they can intercept our telephone calls, listen to our radio and watch our television programmes.
This is the worrying thing. They can access everything we have ever broadcast as soon as it gets within range of their planet. They will not only get the messages transmitted especially for them by the scientists involved in inter-planetary research. They will also get X Factor and TOWIE and all that other rubbish. Even programmes that suggest that there are intelligent human beings on Earth – take, for example, Criminal Minds or Bones, both featuring geniuses among their protagonists – will leave them with the impression that people are dark and murderous more often than they are kind and giving. Our documentaries lean far too heavily on Nazis and other fascists and our music channels feature a lot of semi-naked people considering that we are generally encouraged on this planet to wear clothes when out in public. Do we really want aliens getting all their information about us from The Jeremy Kyle Show? Or, worse, The Jeremy Kyle Show USA?

Chances are, the fact that we have not made contact with aliens does not mean that they are not out there. It could simply be that they have seen the state of our television and they have used it to judge us and hate us already.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Disgusting Truth About Butterflies

Along with ponies and rainbows and princesses, there are usually millions of brightly-coloured butterflies swarming around the flowery fairytale garden of every cliché female child. But maybe they shouldn’t be a part of this sickeningly girly idyll because they are actually quite gross. More specifically, it is their eating habits that can be repulsive.

People are taught – and generally this is true – that butterflies suck nectar from flowers for nourishment and drink from puddles through a long proboscis for water. Butterflies do this, but flowers are not their only source of food. Equally as commonly as they eat nectar, butterflies also feet on rotting fruit, animal dung and decaying corpses. Look at them, all there in that picture, all eating that poo.

Flowers alone do not provide enough sodium for butterflies, so they are attracting to salty things. If a butterfly has ever landed on you, it is not because it likes you or because you look particularly like a flower; actually, it is because the butterfly was attracted by the smell of salt in your sweat and blood and it want to eat you. Maybe it did eat you, but its proboscis was so tiny that you didn’t feel it sucking at you.

When they feed off anything that has been discarded and is now rotting – including fruit, but more often poo and the flesh of dead animals and people – they do something called ‘mud-puddling’. This is generally a male behaviour, but not exclusively, and the nutrients collected from it are sometimes offered to females as a gift preceding mating, so those slags are hardly less disgusting. From mud-puddling, the butterflies take salts, sugars and proteins.

Some species of butterfly are particularly attracted to human urine for its sodium content. Others prefer dun or carrion (dead stuff) for the ammonium ions found the. Fruits provide sugars as well as alcohol when they are in a sufficient state of decay.

Although they are less popular, moths have similar feeding patterns. Some species are even known for their habits of sucking blood from sleeping animals and humans and others are sadistic enough to feed off tears.

So … do you still think they’re sweet?